New workshop explores books as works of art

By Jordan Williams, William & Mary Libraries

This fall William & Mary Libraries and the Muscarelle Museum of Art collaborated on its first Art of the Book workshop. This intensive two-day workshop explored the history of the book and culminated in the creation of an original collective handmade book. 

A group photo of the workshop instruction team. Meghan Bryant, Steve Prince and Tyler Goldberger from left to right in the back. Sara Wicker '23 and William Tatum ‘23 in the front.

The workshop was orchestrated by Dr. Meghan Bryant, the libraries’ Head of Special Collections Public Services and Instruction, and Steve Prince, the Muscarelle’s Director of Engagement. 

“Our goal was to teach the participants to look at books as not just text, but rather as physical and cultural artifacts. Art and archives are intertwined in so many ways, and it was exciting to explore those overlaps with a diverse group of people,” Bryant said. 

Bryant drew inspiration for the event after attending Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. She took a course called “Teaching the History of The Book” and the experience encouraged her to design a similar educational opportunity for W&M and the Williamsburg community.

“I felt compelled to do a mini rare book school here, but I wanted it to be shorter than a traditional rare book school program and open to anyone,” she said. “I then approached Steve with the idea of hosting a program that would approach books as art objects and he immediately shared my enthusiasm for the concept.”

Steve Prince helping a participate create a handmade book

As someone with a deep appreciation for books and bookmaking, it was a no-brainer for Prince to partner with Bryant on the Art of the Book.

It took two hours of brainstorming over coffee for Bryant and Prince to map out the curriculum. The initial day of the workshop was dedicated to taking a deep dive into the rich history within Swem Library’s rare book collection, while the second day was spent in Matoaka Studios gaining hands-on experience with the process of book illustration.

“We provided the best of both worlds, which was the visual art and text world,” Prince said. “We not only remember what we see but also how they make us feel. That is why the experiential element was a key component of our class. It was great to end the class by actually making a book and allowing the participants to experience working in an atelier. At that point, Meghan and I knew we had something special.”

To make the workshop accessible to anyone, there was no prerequisite for art or book history experience, which resulted in a diverse group of attendees. Every background was represented as students, library staff, professors, and Williamsburg residents, including a 10-year-old, came together to examine, engage with, and learn about books as cultural objects and material works of art.

Dr. Phillip Emanuel discussing a book on display during his lecture

“I was delighted and surprised that we had a mix of ages, backgrounds and levels of art experience among our participants,” Bryant said. “That diversity made the workshop more fun because everyone had a different perspective, and yet we were able to connect through a shared project.”

During the first day, Special Collections Research & Instruction Associate Dr. Phillip Emanuel provided a series of lectures on a variety of books in Special Collections, showing participants some of the SCRC’s oldest, finest, most unique, and even most worn books so that the group could see the physical elements of printing, illustrating, and binding books of all kinds. 

Elise Tsao ’25 is a student assistant for the Special Collections Research Center but was still surprised by the level of diversity among the materials in the rare book collection. Tsao did not expect to see almanacs and handwritten letters by ‘everyday’ individuals from various time periods.

Elise Tsao ’25 taking a photo with her drawing.

“I enjoyed the way Phillip explained the importance of preserving more than just materials by rich white men,” Tsao said. “Special Collections is trying to expand their archives to tell stories by everybody.”

Day two of the workshop was dedicated to allowing the participants to collaborate on creating an alphabet book. Everyone was assigned an alphabet letter and had to create a design, inspired by decorated initials in early books and manuscripts, that incorporated their letter.

“When thinking about what we could do in community that allowed everyone to contribute, I thought we should do something basic,” Prince said. “It was important that we did something like that because it is something we understand not only from a child standpoint but also as an adult.”

Prince placed no restrictions on how participants created a representation of their letter. Adonis Anderson ’23, an anthropology major, took advantage of the flexibility by doing a design that paid tribute to his significant other.

“I received the letter k, which is my fiancée’s first initial,” Anderson said. “I redid a simplified drawing of one of our engagement photos and it was very cute.” 

A participant working on her drawing

Overall, Anderson appreciated the inclusion of all skill levels. The program was outlined to make everyone feel involved, regardless of their knowledge of book history or art.

Anderson added everyone had a voice throughout the weekend and the instructors provided space for open dialogue between them and the participants.

“The atmosphere provided a vibe for us all to come together to learn about book history and printmaking. The instruction team did not act as if they inherently knew more than us and allowed for open discussions.”

After witnessing the engagement from multiple generations during the workshop, Prince is excited to partner with Bryant for another Art of the Book workshop in the spring.

“We had this community of people who choose to come together for a weekend and spend an extensive amount of time together,” Prince said. “The evidence of the joy that they had in the experience was on their faces and body. It was something you could read.”