Introducing the Reading Room

We’re happy to announce today the launch of the Reading Room—a special corner of dedicated to catalogues of exhibitions past. These are out-of-print, hard-to-find books reprinted in full for you to read online or download as a pdf—for free. To kick things off we are offering ten books related to the Southern California art scene, with plans for more books reflecting the depth and breadth of LACMA’s collection to be added over the coming months. We asked Nola Butler, co-director of LACMA’s Publications Department and a member of the team that got the Reading Room up and running, for her take on this new venture.

"Edward Kienholz," exhibition catalogue, pp. 55-56, on Reading Room

There are certain out-of-print LACMA catalogues, like Art and Technology (1971), that have become legendary (and not just in the mind of an editor in the Publications Department). I first came across one of these treasures when I was working on curator Howard Fox’s essays for Made in California (2000). I hadn’t been at LACMA very long and was just learning about the infamous Back Seat Dodge controversy. Weirdly, by chance, I happened to discover Maurice Tuchman’s brilliant Edward Kienholz (1966) in the back of a Pubs department file cabinet. There’s something about finding just the right book at just the right time, and the Kienholz catalogue is one very cool book: a faux leather-bound paperback with faux marbled paper on the inside covers, a greenish “toothy” stock for the text pages, and black-and-white images with cartouche-shaped borders like in old photo albums. There is a lovely surprise at the back—a gatefold of The Beanery, Kienholz’s homage to the old Barney’s. They reserved one full page for a color reproduction of our own Back Seat Dodge ’38. Deborah Sussman’s design is crafty; the book looks like a battered scrapbook that Kienholz might’ve found in a junk shop and used in one of his works. It’s sort of ugly and beautiful at the same time.

I still have that book in my office, and over the years I’ve kept my eyes open for more of these legendary LACMA catalogues. In assembling material for the Reading Room, I had an excuse to really go after these books—searching Pubs offices and eBay, borrowing from the Rights and Reproductions Department and our research library. I’ve filled two long shelves in my office with just about every book and catalogue this encyclopedic institution has ever published. My desk faces these shelves, and every time I look at them, it makes me happy.

Nola's bookshelf

This is the great thing about the Reading Room: it’s like I get to invite everyone over to my office to check out all the fantastic books LACMA has done. You can see that Kienholz book, Art and Technology, and the rest of our electronic reprints right here.

Nola Butler, Co-director of Publications

7 Responses to Introducing the Reading Room

  1. elon says:

    Very cool post, Nola. Thanks for sharing the bibliophilic inspiration. The quality of the scans and ease of navigation are pretty great.
    I’d also love to see photos of curators’ bookshelves, with their notes about favorites, or hard-found rarities.

  2. Hi Nola,

    This is great news – congrats on this fantastic project and it’s wonderful to see you are using the open source reader from the Internet Archive, that’s super. I’d be interested to hear about your workflow process around the digitization effort. I noticed that the books say they were digitized by the Internet Archive. Is this a service they are willing to provide? Any thoughts on the actual workflow process would be of interest.

  3. Marc Fischer says:

    This is really great and something all museums should be doing with material they have no intention of reprinting (or even if they do intend to reprint the books). This is the beginning of what is sure to be an extremely valuable resource.

    I’d like to offer a couple thoughts and criticisms:

    The first book I downloaded as a PDF is “Museum as Site”. The image and text quality is quite poor when the pages are enlarged even slightly. Likewise with other materials viewed directly on the site as they are enlarged. These PDFs wouldn’t print well. While I wouldn’t expect you to necessarily scan these books at 300 dpi, this scan definitely does not take full advantage of what is possible here. These appear to be 72 dpi scans.

    One of the great things about PDFs, if the resolution is higher, is that any book can instantly become a large print edition for someone who might be visually impaired. You can blow up the text and it looks fantastic – often much easier to read than the original printing. Details of works of art can become far more noticeable upon enlargement. Scanners see details we would easily miss with our eyes – particularly when they are scanning something like an original drawing but even when they are scanning books.

    Again, this is a great path for the museum to go down, but I hope you’ll consider raising the resolution of these scans so that they can have an even greater use value.

  4. Nola Butler says:

    Thanks very much, Elon. I’m hoping we can do something with your idea–who doesn’t love looking through other people’s bookshelves?!

    Shelley, thanks for this. The process started with our director, who asked us to explore getting into digital publishing. Our small team of five(incl directors of Pubs and Communications, and web editor–with advice/expertise from several other museum depts, e.g., Graphics, R&R/Legal, IS) began initial planning just about six months ago. We settled on open-source reader and out-of-print pubs as best way to start. We’ve had a great experience with non-profit IA, who did digitize for us at one of their scanning centers–one we used was Downtown LA. It’s great to see our stuff as part of a serious internet library like IA. Wanted to keep same high standards for digital pubs, so, for example, we proofed all digital books against printed books. Our web editor oversaw the adaptation of IA reader interface with an outside design firm. We are very happy with the results but know there’s sill lots to learn. Thanks for your interest.

    Marc, thanks so much for your comments. You’re the first to give us feedback on this aspect. High-res PDFs are essentially print-on-demand publications and we see the value of providing that too. For this first round, we were admittedly focused on online (v. printed) presentation, but this is definitely something worth exploring as we go forward.


  5. James Leggio says:

    Quick question: When you say that “we proofed all digital books against printed books,” what did that entail exactly and why was this step felt to be necessary?

  6. Nola Butler says:

    Hi, James. We printed out the PDFs and slugged them against the printed book; thought of it like proofing bluelines or F&Gs. Internet Archive has a unique scanning process. The operators use special scanning machines with v-shaped book cradles and twin high-tech digital cameras aimed at the two sides of the book, which are held down by glass panes. The “digitization specialists” (also called “scriveners”!) turn the pages and make other adjustments by hand. IA does their own quality-control check, but they were all for us proofing too. IA is really a fantastic outfit, Thanks for your question, Nola

  7. […] catalogue has reached an almost mythic status, and remains one of LACMA’s most in-demand catalogues.[x]  Although a one-time project (until now!), the Art and Technology Program remains important […]

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