Visual Artists & Academic Libraries

Today marks the end of winter term and the end of my independent study that focused on assessing how academic libraries support studio-based programs, specifically the visual arts. I have enjoyed every moment, but it’s time to strike the show. While it doesn’t cover everything, here are some of my closing thoughts on academic libraries and visual artists.

Where we’re at

In my experience as an artist and an MLIS student, artists are generally well represented by the LIS literature. Cobbledick’s1 information seeking model, later refined by Hemmig,2 shows that artists seek information for inspiration, visual stimuli, knowledge, trends, and career guidance. The idea of sequence is unclear and I would argue these elements occur at the same time, often overlapping. Seeking inspiration, for example, doesn’t stop when production begins and Hemmig points out monitoring art trends can be a source of inspiration. This touches on the individual intricacies of the artistic process, but Cobbledick’s model can certainly provide librarians with a foundation to guide collection and services.    

There are a lot of themes in the LIS literature—like the importance of socialization and attitude toward librarians—but I find the attitude toward copyright and licensing information particularly interesting. Creating pages to act as a copyright resource for artists and instructors proved just how complex this aspect can become. There are resources available to guide artistic instruction and practice, but artists seem to avoid or sidestep this information. The is understandable and also makes copyright and licensing a great opportunity for librarians to connect with their students, researchers, and faculty.   

Technology: A matter of perspective?

There is surprisingly little research on the use of technology by visual artists, which could be for various reasons. One possible reason is time. A lot of the well-known and significant studies were published in the late 90s or early 2000s before digital technology was so easily and frequently accessed. Another possible reason is the group of research participants; some forms of art are more likely to involve technology than others. Animators and architects, for example, are likely to consider various forms of technology to be essential to their practice.

Perhaps another issue is simply a matter of perspective and, possibly, terminology. This occurred when reflecting on my own practice. I don’t consider technology to be a significant part of my artwork. It does, however, involve what I (as an artist) would refer to as equipmentlighting kits, microphones, digital cameras, film and sound editing software, projectors, screens, speakers, and everything else required to exhibit a digital video. Audio and visual (AV) equipment is so common to video and photography that I don’t necessarily view it as “technology” even though some aspects may overlap. From my own perspective as a conceptual artist, these are the tools required to create an artwork from a concept.

An area for future study is definitely the use of technology by visual artists and with this research it will be important to define what we’re referring to (and what artists are referring to) when we say “technology.”

All are (probably) not one

When LIS literature refers to “artists,” who do we mean? My own reading indicates that musicians have considerably different needs, but other members of the performing arts share sensibilities with visual artists. Many studies group artists together regardless of medium or practice in order to gain a broad understanding. There are themes that are found to represent most visual artists like browsing, but there are also differences. For example, one study found photographers and ceramic artists are two groups that tend to seek technical information (manuals) more than other artists.3 Attempting to divide these groups may be useful but problematic.

Colorful mess by Saurabh_B

“Artist” may include a huge range of roles such as costume designer, animator, painter, sculptor, photographer, auto detailer, and many more. I focused on visual artists, but this is still a diverse population. Looking at painters alone, we can divide this group into various medium subgroups: acrylic, oil, watercolour, gouache, or impasto, each of which may be applied to a variety of surfaces. We could also examine painters by type, stage of career, and style. This may sound overly granular, but consider the different needs of a outdoor mural painter and a children’s illustrator. These are just a sample of the possible categories that may have different information behaviour—really, it becomes a sort of endless drop-down menu.

Having said this, I’m not sure medium even the best way to group visual artists. Practical concerns like studio space, storage space, shipping restrictions, financial situation, access to equipment, and (realistically) sales heavily influence an artist’s practice. Medium may be one way to divide artists into groups, but it is not without faults.

Idiosyncratic browsing

As studies show, the idiosyncratic nature of artists adds a bit of a wildcard to this discussion. Browsing is a reasonably unanimous activity, but each artist may go about this in different ways. This browsing becomes something like collecting or harvesting (or, yes, hoarding)—some of the information will be used now, some of it will be used later, and some may never be used. Artists actively seek stimulus through diverse sources of information, but what do they do with it? How is a nature walk ‘collected’ when it’s an observational experience? There may be personal photos or sketches that exist alongside public pinterest boards of images found online. However it happens, it would be fascinating to explore this act of visual archiving.

A more practical question may be how academic libraries can meet the needs of a user group that approaches information with a sort of grazing or I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it mentality? (I say this without negative connotation, especially since I now recognize this approach in my own art-related information behaviour.) This may be something that public libraries can simply do better, as studies show artists tend to prefer their collection and environment.1,2,4 Through my own study, I’ve observed the different mechanisms that meet the needs of an academic visual arts department. It appears that artists needs are generally being met, though it occurs through various bodies on campus. 

Moving forward

There are a lot of other threads to this discussion to continue that I will continue to explore through my MLIS studies and LIS career. This independent study focused on academic libraries, so I look forward to exploring how art and public libraries meet the needs of artists. I hope to work with visual artists both with and without academic affiliation in order to observe differing needs. For each of these groups, what actually going on day to day? The information needs and practices of a personal studio also opens a new area of research; future work may involve working with established artists to understand personal record keeping and supply organization. These are just a few areas of interest that will be part of my future LIS career.

1. Cobbledick, Susie. 1996. “The Information-Seeking Behavior of Artists: Exploratory Interviews.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 66 (4): 343–372.
2. Hemmig, William. 2009. “An Empirical Study of the Information‐seeking Behavior of Practicing Visual Artists.” Journal of Documentation 65 (4): 682–703. doi: 10.1108/00220410910970302.
3. Frank, Polly. 1999. “Student Artists in the Library: An Investigation of How They Use General Academic Libraries for Their Creative Needs.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 25 (6): 445–455. doi: 10.1016/S0099-1333(99)00077-4.
4. Cowan, Sandra. 2004. “Informing Visual Poetry: Information Needs and Sources of Artists.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 23 (2): 14–20.
First is a combination of: Crayons de couleur by Nicolas Buffler and Last of the color coding by Juhan Sonin.
Second is: Colorful mess by Saurabh_B.

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