Notes on Queering the Collection(s) @ the ICP Library

Queering the Collection, 2019, a collaboration between GenderFail and the ICP Library
  1. from the publisher

“Throughout 2018, the ICP Library collectively produced more than six in-house library installations and events considering representation in libraries at large. The success of this initiative resulted in an increase of the ICP Library’s holdings of queer, gender non-binary imagemakers, and artists of color.

“To celebrate the enriching dynamics of Queering the Collection and further bridge the gap between representation and collecting, the ICP Library collaborated with Be Oakley of GenderFail, along with Christopher Clary, Patricia Silva, and many other participating artists, curators, and bookmakers, to highlight these projects in a publication scheduled for release in March 2019.

“The Queering the Collection publication features an introduction by Paul Soulellis, founder of Library of the Printed Web, along with interviews with participating artists and imagemakers, photographs, and in-depth accounts of the events. Queering the Collection is designed and printed by GenderFail.

“Queering the Collection is the culminating publication based on the Queering the Collection program, a collaboration between GenderFail and the International Center of Photography Library. Queering the Collection is a series exhibitions, programs and events that presented a variety of curatorial perspectives on contemporary investigations of gender through archives, libraries, and collections.”

2. As far as I know, there was never an official collections policy for the Library at ICP. It grew fitfully over the early years uptown at 1130 Fifth Ave (1974-2001) through donations and occasional purchases, willed into existence through the zealousness and perseverance of Deputy Director and former Head of Education Phillip S. Block, who, ahead of the curve, understood the importance of photo books as cultural markers, as dynamic, creative things. Generous gifts from colleagues of founder Cornell Capa such as Jacob Deschin and David Douglas Duncan, and the general interests of Capa shaped around what he termed “concerned photography” generated a sizable collection of books related to photojournalism and documentary work, but the library was also reflective of all who entered the institutional doors. Uptown the vertiginous stacks were overseen by Lucia Siskin, a flamboyant artist and raconteur, who carried on a tradition of the library as an informal hub, a microcosm of ICP’s mandate as a “center” for many, for whom Lucia offered conversation and a willingness to expand the collection when needs were stated. Unfortunately the library was not helped by the architecture of the original building, the former home of Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney on Fifth Ave, where it filled three small rooms, two of which were storage.

Despite the fiscal austerity of its support, albeit stoked with a vision to the future and the deep commitment of Phil Block, when ICP moved to 43rd Street in 2001, it had a library of over 20,000 titles, along with hundreds of artist’s files, none of them cataloged. The move to a new space also brought on staff ICP’s first official librarian, Deirdre Donohue, who brought in subsequently a team of catalogers and archivists, assisted by an enthusiastic, diverse group of donors, volunteers, and students.

The move to the space in midtown and the extensive electronic cataloging of the collection coincided with the impact of digital technologies in publishing and a shift towards artisanal, small-scale production. Coterminous with the obsolescence of conventional print publication was an interest in books and book forms by artists, collectors, and dealers.

The creation of this market by dealers and collectors facilitated production stripped of great profit, but, as if in compensation, it encouraged the clubby spheres of cognoscenti. For artists and photographers, the sheer access of books, the simplified means of production, and the impulse to look at more, going backwards to go forwards, transformed the plebian library into a cultural fulcrum, wider than the limited aesthetic scope of a fine art museum. The intense eclecticism of the scope of the ICP Library collection and the deep enthusiasms of its staff and patrons brought an energy beyond cost. Book-making became part of school curriculum and a new focus on artist’s books enriched the collection. Donations, including a large group of Korean photobooks, and additions such as the complete set of Joachim Schmid‘s series Other People’s Pictures, along with the always growing library of books by alumni, are among the traces that remain from this engaged and shifting community.

Beyond initial workshops in desktop publishing, curricula developed through the artist and publisher Victor Sira in the then-new MFA program run by Nayland Blake, who also included coursework addressing archive and library research through Deirdre Donohue and collections curator Ed Earle; along with continuing education production classes taught by Christina Labey and Jason Burstein at Conveyor Studio. Library archivist Matthew Carson was a founding member of 10X10 Photobooks, bringing the work of that organization into an ongoing and overlapping relationship with the ICP Library.

3. This is a circuitous map of how the experiments instigated by GenderFail, involving collections, events, and the physical plant of the library itself, could find a temporary autonomous zone in the ICP Library.

As per current Librarian Emily Dunne, “it is crucial to remember H. R. Ranganathan’s five laws of library science:

  • Books are for use.
  • Every person their book.
  • Every book its reader.
  • Save the time of the reader.
  • The library is a growing organism.
“. . . She’s an OLD MAID!” [working at a library] from It’s a Wonderful Life, dir. Frank Capra, 1947

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