Since just about anything can be read on a computer screen nowadays, the printed book is beginning to feel like an endangered species. If books become extinct, what happens to paper? The UW Libraries' exhibit Text Support: A Library Exhibition About Paper examines the history and production of this material and its role as the silent sidekick in the history of printing. Curated by Tracy Honn and Lyn Korenic, the exhibition runs through June 28.
Text Support is like a treasure hunt because it occupies three separate spaces. The largest part is located in the Special Collections section of the Memorial Library. Upon entering a quiet room that overlooks Lake Mendota, you are confronted by several display cases. The first encapsulates the gist of the larger exhibition, showing examples of the evolution of the printed book, from "Papyrus to Plastic." The timeline begins with "paper-like materials" and ends with a Kindle.
Other cases cover a range of topics, including newspaper prints, watermarks, paper pulp grades and textures, and the history of logging in Wisconsin.
A display case on the second floor of Memorial Library contains Hand Papermaking's 2010 portfolio, "Number 9: Handmade Paper in Motion." This work features pop-up pieces of paper art that move. Emily Martin and Bridget O'Malley's contribution to the portfolio interprets Pandora's box. Green snakes spring from a flat paper box. Attached is a printed note tag that reads: "To: Pandora, From: Zeus, P.S. Do Not Open (EVER)."
At the nearby Kohler Art Library, there's a display that's more focused on artist books, that is, works of art created in book form. Borrowing text (and acknowledging that it is borrowed) is a fairly common practice in the book arts field. Beth Grabowski's "Ellenwood: fireproof colonial home, begun in 1907 and completed in 1909" illustrates how it is also an art form. The text is from the letters of one of Grabowski's forbears. This book was printed at Madison's Copper Ogham Press and uses paper that was "handmade with the last of the linen from [Grabowski's] great grandmother's trousseau." Only 25 editions were printed.
The exhibition as a whole is well conceived. Most pieces are dimly illuminated and placed behind display glass, but there are also books of handmade paper that you can touch. These works come from as far away as Italy and as close as Madison.
Since the exhibition is inside three different library spaces, it forces visitors to consider libraries' purpose, how they function as not only houses for books but centers for learning and bastions of silence. In the quiet, surrounded by the familiarity of bookshelves and reminded of the knowledge that's being transmitted, the answer to the "future of the book" question seems like a no-brainer.