Cataloguing the Marama Warren collection

Rare Books and Fine Printing cataloguing

You might not know it, but alongside our world-renowned Milton collection, and the largest collection of pre-1501 books in New Zealand, the Turnbull’s Rare Books collection also boasts the largest collection of books by New Zealand artist-book maker Marama Warren.

Artists’ books are items that fall somewhere on a continuum between ‘art’ and ‘book’. They’re often one-off or produced in very limited numbers. Marama Warren is a New Zealand artist book-maker living in Australia who has been a respected practitioner in this field for decades.

A collection of 74 items spanning her career to date was acquired by the library in 2016 and 2017, and was, until recently, uncatalogued. That’s where I come in. As part of my initiation into the arcane world of Rare Books and Fine Printing cataloguing, I was tasked with upgrading the records from very minimal, placeholder records to much fuller descriptive catalogue records. As a cataloguer at the National Library, we see a wide variety of items every day, but working with such beautiful objects was a particular treat, though it certainly had its challenges.

Art, book, or artist’s book?

Generally speaking, when cataloguing, we focus primarily on conveying what the item in hand is about. But because so much of the focus with special printed collections is on the physicality of the item itself, I included much more detailed information about what the item is.

Mostly I ended up classifying the items in this collection as ‘books’ or ‘art objects’, but there were some philosophical conundrums along the way. For example, this item 'Words flow easily' was a shredded book in a box, with these papier-mâché yin/yang shapes (which were made from the shredded paper of the same book) nested on top.

One could argue that this was both a book and a work of art. Indeed, I’m pretty sure I did have this discussion, aloud, with myself, havering both ways endlessly, before finally settling on calling it an ‘art object’.

Photo of Words flow easily as described in the text above.
Words flow easily, Marama Warren. Ref: fRPr407800, Alexander Turnbull Library.

Cataloguers’ judgement

But why did I choose ‘art object’? Well, ultimately because I was considering the user. As cataloguers, we have the complicated task of creating an intellectual facsimile of an object with both form and content. If a user saw a catalogue record designating this as a ‘book’, and came in to look at it, they’d probably be surprised to be greeted by a 3-D boat-like ‘thing’.

Classifying it as an ‘art object’, and expanding on this in a note, gives me much more scope to accurately describe what it is. When balancing the exacting international standards that our records must take into account against user-friendliness we have the small, but necessary, loophole which allows for ‘cataloguers’ judgement’. Phew.

Small papier mache boat with a hand printed book in it. Boat has a leaf as a sail.
Hope Boat. Ref: RPr407775. Alexander Turnbull Library.

DTR: defining the relationships

One of the conceptual frameworks that we consider every time we pick up an item to catalogue is whether it has a relationship to another item. There are plenty of subtleties to this (think different languages, illustrated editions, abridgements), but since the items in this collection are mostly one-offs, I was gleefully rubbing my hands at the prospect of being able to switch off that part of my brain for a bit. Not so!

The items in this picture had arrived at the library as a single work, and had been accessioned onto a single short record, and I had the task of trying to figure out why. There was nothing in the design elements that could be said to link the items: the book is turquoise and brown with a freer illustrative style and some hand-printed elements; the fan is digitally printed in a repeating pattern of black and blue. What they did have in common was a small section of text, almost a mantra, that was repeated in both items (and in others in the collection).

Hope Fan
L to R. Hope fan #2. Ref: fRPr407780. The grandmothers. Ref: RPr407802. Alexander Turnbull Library.

In this instance, I was lucky enough to be able to email the artist and ask her whether the items were intended as parts of a whole. Her answer was a definitive ‘no’, and that was good enough for me. I catalogued them separately with no formal relationship between the records. What I did do, though, was include the text from each in an unstructured note, so that if a user wants to find different instances of this mantra across the artist’s oeuvre, they can.

Parts and wholes

Here is an example of an item which is a whole with parts. Another ‘book in a box’, this time about Matariki, with each of the seven small, numbered books representing one of the seven stars. It’s difficult to tell from the photos, but these ‘flower-fold’ books are made of a variety of metallic papers, and can be opened out and tied, or hung. Some of the books contain text, while others don’t (and one is far too small to fit any text), but the work wouldn’t be complete without each of the seven books.

Matariki In A Box
Matariki. Marama Warren's seven star-fold books folded up in a cardboard box. Ref: fRPr407799. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Matariki In A Box Open
Matariki. The seven star-fold books out of the box and opened to show their full glory. Ref: fRPr407799. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Mountain, flower, accordion

Who knew that there were so many ways to fold paper and call it a book? I certainly didn’t, until I began work on this collection. Fortunately, I was sponsored by the library to attend the Rare Books Summer School this year, which was taught by local artist-book maker Paul Thompson.

This was a crash course in new terminology and new skills (it was a very hands-on course) and gave me a new appreciation for the paper wizardry Marama has conjured with her work. It was also during this course that I realised that the rare books thesauri I’d been using didn’t have a lot in the way of contemporary artist-book terminology.

The book in the image below is folded in a style Marama refers to as ‘mountain-fold’, which is essentially an accordion-fold structure with paper ‘flags’ which lift up to exaggerate the shape of the book.

Mountain Fold
Te hikoi o Marama. Ref: fRPr407798. Alexander Turnbull Library.

What's a diligent cataloguer to do?

The RBMS includes the term ‘Accordion fold format’, but not ‘mountain fold’. So what’s a diligent cataloguer to do? I decided that the best way to approach this was to include the controlled vocabulary as a search term, where available, and to include the artist’s preferred term in a note field. You can see both underlined in fuschia on this screen-grab of the final record.

The other thing you may notice in this record is the variety of subject and genre headings. This record draws from four different thesauri to give as rounded description as possible for the work:

  • Library of Congress subject headings with a green dot
  • Māori subject headings with a red dot
  • Rare Books and Manuscripts headings with the cyan dot, and
  • a lone Library of Congress form and genre term with a dark blue dot.
Te Hikoi Marama Record
Catalogue record for Te hikoi o Marama. Record in National Library Catalogue

Seeing these items

Some of these items are held in the G collection, some are housed in the Rare Books cage, and all are available to view in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room on request. But, if you aren’t in Wellington, or even in New Zealand (like the artist herself), I like to think that these catalogue records provide an accurate alternative. 

Type 'Marama Warren' into our catalogue and see for yourself. National Library Catalogue

By Hannah Mettner

Collection Description Librarian

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Ruth Lightbourne August 9th at 5:01PM

Great stuff. Interesting. So good that people are now realising that book objects are not necessarily about the content. This is especially so for Rare Books.

Sandy Aureli August 10th at 12:41PM

How wonderful that this library has the vision to collect Marama Warren's amazing work, and to apply such diligent and meticulous cataloguing effort to the collection. Congratulations Hannah!

dinah mitchell August 11th at 2:48PM

So wonderful to see these collected works so beautifully preserved and catalogued for future generations.

Judith Ackroyd August 11th at 4:05PM

This exquisite and sacred work of Marama’s is so honoured by attention to such fine reflection of it’s catelogueing.

Kath Rogers August 11th at 9:46PM

Thoroughly enjoyed reading and seeing Marama's beautiful 'books' being catalogued, and reading the catalogue. Well done.

Helen Warren August 12th at 6:22AM

Who knew I was related to someone so talented and famous and what would the work be without an equally talented cataloguer. Great team effort Marama and Hannah.

Miriam Miller August 12th at 11:49AM

I am so pleased Marama that your talent is finally being recognised.. Miriam

Hilary Foged August 12th at 5:11PM

I really appreciate how thoughtfully and thoroughly you have expressed your process in cataloguing this fine collection of Marama Warren's work. Your comments have provided such an interesting reflection of the diversity, depth and unique creativity the artist/bookmaker has demonstrated in these works.

Ken Williams August 12th at 9:12PM

Disclosure: I have known Marama Warren for many years and examples of her work cheer our house. But I am ever stunned by the beauty of her gorgeous creations, which reflect the inner being of a remarkable person.

Kim Gregory August 16th at 8:59PM

What an interesting article about Marama's exquisite artist books. So glad to see Marama's beautiful collection of work being catalogued with such sensivity.

Bridget Ikin August 17th at 12:54PM

A wonderful article ... such thoughtful consideration of marama’s beautiful works. So full of meaning - so it’s very special to see the cataloguing being done with such care alongside them.

Rose-Marie Tonk August 17th at 10:59PM

Congratulations Hannah on doing such a good job cataloguing these wonderful items. So pleased they are now fully catalogued. Marama is lucky to have had her work dealt with by such an empathetic and skilled cataloguer.