01 Jul 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

How would you describe a book without using words?

In what ways is the meaning and significance of an individual book affected by its provenance?

What do you learn about someone by looking at their extensive library (besides nearly everything)—and how many of these gleanings are your own false conclusions, connections, assumptions, which say more about you than about anyone else? If a personal library is a portrait of its owner, is the reading of that library a self-portrait of the reader?

These are some of the questions that come when perusing the evocative work of artist Abra Ancliffe, creator of the Personal Libraries Library (PLL) in Portland, OR. A collection of collections, or a “librarywork,” the Personal Libraries Library (est. 2009) reassembles the libraries of select public figures and circulates these books among the PLL members. The project began with the recreation of the personal library of the nineteenth century astronomer, librarian, educator, suffragist Maria Mitchell; followed by that of the artist, writer, thinker Robert Smithson; and then the libraries of Italian writer Italo Calvino, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and African-American poet, activist, and gardener Anne Spencer. Currently, the PLL “is in the process of collecting the personal libraries of Lucy Lippard, Georges Perec, Buckminster Fuller, Hannah Arendt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Yoko Ono” (in that order). And so the Personal Libraries Library reveals not only the predilections of those individuals included, but when considered together suggests the interests and concerns of its founding librarian. It is temptingly easy to speculate about Ancliffe: a bibliophilic artist with naturalist tendencies, certainly. Definitely a feminist; interested in social justice history; intrigued by new forms, and genre experimentation. But which public figures does she consider, and then exclude? Which collections does she prioritize, and why? (While you will not find the answers to these particular questions, to learn more about PLL’s origin and Ancliffe’s method of collecting, check out (haha, library pun) Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly’s article on Art Practical).

In addition to circulating the books of the PLL among its members, Ancliffe activates the collection by publishing via the Personal Libraries Library Press. She describes these publications as “printed matter” that “offers differing investigations of the Collection as well as questions the role of books, libraries, and archives in the production of meaning & understanding.” These equivocal printworks serve as elusive introductions to books; to me, they are enticing invitations to locate and experience the book or collection itself. They offer a portal into how Ancliffe relates to the collection. And as you puzzle over them, you realize they are mirrors that reflect how your own interests intersect with Ancliffe’s, and with those of the books’ famous owners.

The printed matter varies from letterpress printed single panel cards tucked into folded digital printed folios, to digitally printed color posters that reproduce a single image or an entire spread of a book; or on occasion, several books or images at once. Sometimes the source book or collection is identified; other times, it is not. Examining the ephemera in consultation with Ancliffe’s website is a sort of sleuthing, with aha! moments of discovery as the origin of an individual piece is revealed. This experience, of reconstructing how the book may (or may not!) have been significant to its famous owner, reproduces the process of research: the formulation of questions, the peering for clues, the hypothesis and the corroboration. Of course, as with any interpretation, how much of this activity is in one’s own head? The PLL is far from a didactic collection. It is open, exploratory, its meaning unfixed. In a recent conversation, Ancliffe described many of her formal decisions as “gestural work”;  she says she is interested in “cultivating the page like a garden.”

And so like a memorial garden it grows. The Personal Libraries Library is both tribute and tool for contemplation. By activating often-forgotten books that are significant in relationship to one another and to our cultural record, the PLL encourages inquiry, discovery, and wonder: an exploratory wandering through the stacks.


Citations quoted from and

Emily Larned has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993, when as a teenager she made her first zine. She is co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA). Her work is exhibited and collected by over 70 public institutions, and has been awarded honors by the Type Directors Club (TDC) and the AIGA. She is Chair & Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, CT.


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