Can you see the influence of a library in a degree show?

The season of the end of year degree show is upon us and for some of us may have already ended. This year I have been to more degree shows than ever before. I stumbled across this article by Elizabeth Price in the A-N Degree Show Guide, which inspired me to write this piece; along with attending the Leeds Beckett School of Art, Architecture & Design degree show titled ‘Do’.

As an art history graduate I want to suppress the need to dissect art works and think about them on my own terms and, ultimately, enjoy what I am looking at . I didn’t dissect Leeds Beckett’s show, but I did start to think, with my impending Masters, can you see what effect a library might have had on a degree show? Is there any way you could measure this? Can you see which/what resources may have helped?

The initial answer might be ‘No… how would you do this?’ However, from working in libraries in the arts, Further Education (FE) colleges and Higher Education (HE) institutions, I know that students in their masses use the library. To begin with FE in particular are, from my working experience, always scanning, photocopying and filling sketch books in the library. I recently went to the opening of the Foundation End of Year Show at Leeds College of Art. Many of the foundation students can study a range of subjects and can choose different pathways ranging from Fine Art to Textiles to Graphic Design and Object Design. One form which appeared frequently from studio to studio was book making and book binding. Artist books, illustrators making children’s books, different binding techniques being used; a myriad of content and techniques. I would glean from this not only would the book making facilities in the print workshop at the Vernon Street site have helped, but also the vast collection of artists books available in the library. Add to this the majority of FE students who were making books were applying to higher education programmes in Illustration and Graphic Design, of which huge areas in those fields are dedicated to print (print is not dead!), would lead me to believe that research must have been carried out for the students to make work so connected with the work of professionals in these sectors.

Art students do research, they’re visual, they’re looking for signs everywhere, every day for what to create. On the flip side, what about the skills perhaps gained or explored in  a library being taken outside. Inspiration can be found anywhere from the graffiti near your student home to the free magazines at your favourite store to the books, zines and films you delve through on a daily basis.

What skills can be learnt from a library? Which skills have been expanded through library learning and taken outside the institution?

Research.

In all my library positions, arts based or other, you will always have a student or user who you show your online catalogue to. The simple process of entering a artist, author, movement, time period or any key word can open up a whole range of resources to a student. It is the students job to then focus in on what section of what they are looking for and library staff and librarians can assist with this. We can suggest ways to use the advanced search; how to get from 73,000 results from the word ‘surrealism’ to 721, to 4. I believe these skills, finding books, e-resources and websites can be and are taken outside of the library and used in other circumstances.

What are the signifiers of using a library in a degree show? Is it how professional the show looks? Is it what you derive from a piece? How you think it’s been made? The technical skill involved and how they learnt this? Where they learnt this? A technician? A friend? A book? Some of these? All of these?

After visiting the University of Leeds BA/MA Fine Art degree show another thought occurred to me. I studied the BA History of Art course at the University of Leeds and the Fine Art programme crosses over as Fine Art students have to study some of the same theory modules the Art Historians do. In the first year of study Fine Art students do still have to study 2 compulsory theory modules; potentially 3 as I’m not certain of the current Fine Art course material. Introducing theory modules, assessing Fine Artists using essays (a lot of students hated essay writing and really wanted to get on with making work – I don’t blame them, but my advice would be READ! Read anything and everything.) means that to pass, or maybe I should say to do well, you need to complete the set reading, go to the library, do research, look at your reading lists.

Other courses do have similar structures that require their Art students to complete essays and theoretical modules, but it depends on the institution and how highly they regard the theory behind what is being created. Many institutions may want to focus their students abilities on the technical aspects of making work, which can be taught by technicians, lecturers and other teaching staff. Technical abilities can also be found in books, but books often become outdated. When weeding collections in libraries in various positions I would love looking at old technical books. The slightly off pictures or drawings; potentially long winded ways of working without access to the technology we have today. A student may not go to the library to look up a specific technique, but they would go to research the history of the technique  or alternatively find similar work by artists who they want to coincide with.

Leaving the Leeds area I visited the University of Huddersfield degree show. One specific work struck me whilst I was there was in the Photography section of the show. One student had focused on food photography, which is not something I’d seen at any of the other art shows and something I haven’t seen in many end of year degree shows. Again these photographs were amazingly professional and integrated perfectly with the usual themes and nuances you would find in magazine and online food photography. The University of Huddersfield subscribes to many food related journals ranging from sales based to science and a few which are more media based and consumer focused. Could this wide range of resources be part of this particular student’s academic research? It would be hard to imagine a student in another institution, without these influences, creating the same work.

There is information on exhibitions in libraries and how libraries facilitate exhibitions, but not the work the library does in the relation to the exhibition in terms of research or how the library has contributed with it’s vast collection of information.

I’ll end my work in progress essay here and ask if anyone reading this has any suggestions of books or links to articles to this subject to please let me know. This is definitely something I want to, and will, investigate further.

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