02 May 2022 5:38 AM | Virginia Green (Administrator)

Generally, I have found the book arts community to be welcoming and happy to have conversations that seek to expand rather than limit ideas about book art. However, I also feel that gatekeeping, or limiting access to something, is still too commonplace within the tight-knit book arts world. Gatekeeping shows up in many ways: through elitism about education, stigma against certain processes or techniques, opinions about the validity of works based on the price tag or amount of time put into the piece, or discrimination against artists of specific demographics. It can be hard to navigate, especially for those new to book arts. In our digital age, and particularly with the pandemic spurring such an intense pivot to online and video-based learning, information has luckily been more equitably accessible than ever before. The switch to virtual learning opened the gates for people in locations where there are no book art centers, people who are agoraphobic, and people who find it difficult to fit in-person classes into their schedules. Often Zoom classes are recorded as well, which provides better access for people with severe anxiety, those who need to receive instruction at a different pace, or those who prefer to understand an entire process before they attempt it themselves. With live captioning technology, virtual learning also opened gates for anyone who needs or prefers captions when receiving auditory instruction. Additionally, many organizations implemented pay-what-you-can or sliding scale models to their services, classes, and memberships which opened the gates to those that found the financial investment of participating in aspects of the book arts community to be a hurdle.

While there has been an excellent push toward equitable accessibility in the ways mentioned above, I feel there are further discussions that need to happen to open our community even wider as some of the paths toward greater accessibility are not as clear. Early in the switch to online teaching, I noticed conversations about the types of classes students could handle through virtual learning, an expected lack of quality due to the format, and concerns about recording intellectual property. These points are important to think about but are also areas where gatekeeping can seep back into actions. In my next article, I will breakdown some of my thoughts on these points, but I want to encourage open discussion about them as well as about other points that I may have overlooked.

Some of these points are: - Students don’t have access to equipment, so they can’t learn this technique. - This is too advanced to teach as a workshop. - Students don’t need this information, they only need this information. - These students are too young or too old to learn this. - No one wants to be on Zoom for more than 2 hours, so I am limited in what I can teach. - It’s impossible to see anything in online classes/teaching - online is too difficult. - Teaching workarounds or methods for making without equipment is too difficult or pointless because the equipment is too important. - If I share my process as a video, I’ll be out of a job – anyone can share my video instead of taking my classes.

The book arts community has so many published books depicting binding techniques but so few published books on printing techniques and an incredibly sparse amount of (quality) video tutorials available, so the explosion of accessible classes has been incredible. As that explosion stabilizes, our community has the opportunity to consciously decide how we are going to add to the culture. Putting in the work for equitable access to high-quality information and instruction is a promising way forward.

There were plenty of growing pains in the last few years, but many organizations and institutions have made it clear that the additional access provided by virtual learning was in fact growth and not a temporary adjustment. It is exciting to see the number of virtual offerings that are continuing even as we have started to transition standard operations back to in-person and it is exciting to think of how much more access we can provide for people in the future through methods we haven’t explored deeply yet.

Beth Sheehan is an artist currently living in Tuscaloosa, AL. She teaches paper, print, and book workshops around the US and virtually. She co-authored the book Bookforms. Sheehan has also worked as a professional printer at Durham Press and Harlan and Weaver and was the Bindery Manager at Small Editions.

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