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Mark Dimunation

Mark Calligrames.jpg

Mark Dimunation is the Chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress. 

Photo courtesy of Mark Dimunation.

                                            Interview conducted by Laura Woods, Scripps College '17. 

What are some "gaps" you've noticed in the rare books and artists' books collection?

When I arrived nearly 20 years ago, there was a significant gap in the measure of collecting.  The collections represented the specific taste and expertise of previous curators.  Although they indeed built individual collections of great strength (Gehenna Press, English Wood Engraving, French conceptual works, traditional letterpress printing) they neglected to document the larger movement of contemporary letterpress.  The modern Artists’ Book movement was barley represented, although I must say, those items present (Keith Smith, Tom Philips, etc.) were extremely well chosen.  Balance between male and female artists was not an issue (and at present, with the full run of WSW in the collection, we have a very strong representation of women book artists).  Addressing diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and identity is a bit more complex.  My experience here has been that a diverse collection is achieved when the curator takes direct action.  The market will not bring it to you.  You must be informed, act to cultivate and encourage, and to actively seek out pieces to acquire for the collection.  As a curator who is responsible for a much larger universe of materials, my frustration is that this can take more time than I can sometime devote to the effort.

Would you say that all voices (relating to minority history/culture, identity, sexuality, etc.) are represented in the collection? If not, what are your next steps?

We have been deliberate in our effort to make the fine press and book arts collections inclusive in their representation.  We have obviously been less successful in some areas rather than others.  We do turn to dealers and cooperatives that are outside the traditional market to help bring to our attention book artists who would otherwise not enter our field of vision.  I try to follow “family trees of affiliation” – that is I look to particular artists and ask them to connect me with other artists of similar backgrounds and with shared concerns.  I will say that exhibits such as the one associated with this questionnaire also help skew the corpus of materials to a more direct perspective on diversity and offer curators the opportunity to embrace new avenues of creation and new vocabularies with which to frame them.

Do you approach acquisition differently from other institutions?

Yes.  The Library of Congress is in part a documentary collection; that is, we attempt to create a full record of the American book arts movement across the board.  Ours is also a larger collection than most.  We collect archives of artists, presses and dealers,  and we obtain “making copies” of numerous artists and presses. We tend to collect at a near comprehensive level many representatives of the field.

What have been your primary interests as a collector? How have your interests changed over time?

My interests as a curator are to explore those aspects of the book arts movement that blend content with material presentation.  I am somewhat less interested in traditional fine press (although I do admire the work of many in this area and collect them fairly aggressively).  I look for the intersection of content and experience and how it is actually manifested in the physical representation of the book itself. 

I have been at this for a while.  My original training was in the era of the modern fine press movement, and the aesthetic that I developed then certainly shaped my original view of the book arts movement.  What has prompted a change in this approach over the years has been the opportunity to spend time with a wide range of book artists, discussing their work and exploring their inspiration.   What has emerged is a less formal, more intrinsically personal viewpoint that can be expressed and explored by building a collection.  A collection is, after all, a dialogue between the books and the reader.

What inspired you to become a collector? 

I am a curator.  My impulse is very different from that of a collector.  I am a trained historian, and I believe that that background influences how and why I build a collection.  I look to create representation, transparency, and meaning.  Certainly my personal taste enters into the conversation, but I think the parameters of my collection go well beyond the specific notions of most collectors. 

Would you consider yourself an artist?

No, at least not in this area of expression.  And I suspect a book artist would likely build a collection that is different from the one I build.  I am trying to document a moment in time, one that engages social, cultural and artistic concerns.  I would imagine book artists might collect with a more specific eye.  An interesting question.  I do know that I always pay attention to those artists that are admired by a particular artist.  Do print makers gravitate to other printmakers?  Does the conceptual book always cross the lines of interest for those who are more involved in the nature of the physical book?