Wednesday, 4 March 2020

A visit to the Sketchbook Project, Brooklyn

A library dedicated to sketchbooks? We had a family visit to New York recently during which I finally had a chance to visit a place that I've heard a lot about over the years. The Brooklyn Art Library is home to the Sketchbook Project, which consists of more than 40,000 sketchbooks from around the world, submitted by whoever buys a book from the project and then sends it in.

The library, located down an unassuming road just a short L or G train ride away from Manhattan, is in a bookshelf-lined space behind a shopfront. You could almost mistake it for a shop at first, in fact: there's a counter and tables of merchandise, and then, as your eyes adjust to the light, the receding shelves of sketchbooks come into view.

The sketchbooks used for the project are small – 5x7in and 32 pages – and not so space consuming, but because of their lack of a spine they are mostly anonymous when on the shelf. This isn't a place to pick books off the shelf at will and browse at length. The process for handling the books requires placing a request by doing a catalogue search on the provided tablets or on your smartphone through artist's name, subject, locations or tags – or randomly. Within a few minutes, or seconds even, the book is delivered to you by the librarian. (The book's creator even gets a message to say it has been accessed.)

The reasons for this system are obvious, but it can have the effect of stifling the best of serendipity that working your way through a physical shelfload of books would allow. And the search for items is only as good as the metadata. The books are also not curated, so of widely variable standard. This could perhaps be considered an advantage rather than a disadvantage. One of the project's founders, Steven Peterman, told the New Yorker that one of the reasons for setting it up was to subvert the traditional exploitative gallery culture: "We wanted to create a community anti-gallery space that was inclusive of everyone that wanted to be a part of it." But on my own visit I never felt I cracked the search system in such a way that I found a rich seam of exciting work. Some preparation with regards to what I wanted to see on my visit would have been a good idea.

Participants can, for a fee, also have their books digitised, so opening them up to a much wider audience – you can check them out here. Seeing the books online is not the same as holding them in your hands (I'm turning into a cracked record), but it's an accessible route in, wherever you are. A mobile library in the form of a three-wheeled bookmobile (which is parked in the corner of the library) takes examples of the collected books beyond the library's confines on occasions, and there have been tours of the books in the past.

Not everyone is keen on the idea of buying a sketchbook and giving it back to the people they have bought it from (the book becomes theirs while the copyright to your sketchbook's contents remains yours). The project has very recently become non-profit, which will bring new things such as more education programmes, but it is still a good idea to check the small print before participating, which includes:
  1. 1.2. License to Content. By providing Content through the Services, you thereby grant The Sketchbook Project a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sub-licensable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform such Content in connection with the Services and The Sketchbook Project’s (and its successors' and affiliates') business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Services (and derivative works thereof) in any merchandise or media formats and through any merchandising or media channels...
This may seem like a reasonable price to pay (beyond the financial one) to have your work in this unique sketchbook environment. Here I should admit that several years ago I bought a sketchbook from the project fully intending to submit it, but I never have. It languishes in a drawer next to the desk among a pile of old art materials. The librarian told me it was not too late to finish it and send it in. Maybe I still will.

Brooklyn Art Library is at 28 Frost Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211, USA. It's worth a visit.


MiataGrrl said...

Oh, I wish I'd known you were going... I would have told you that I have 2 books there! :-) Actually, I have mixed feelings about the project myself, and that's why I stopped after the 2. But I still would love to visit someday. And it is fun to get the occasional email from the library telling me that my book was checked out and viewed!

- Tina

James Hobbs said...

I wish I'd seen yours, Tina! To be honest, I wasn't sure I was going to have time to visit it, so I didn't go in the best prepared state. But it's an interesting place to visit.

Anonymous said...

I try to get to the Brooklyn Art Library whenever I visit New York and I have to say, totally agree about feeling stymied with the process for viewing the Sketchbooks. It's still a great place to see and visit BUT it's hard to look at those walls so filled with sketchbooks and only be able to request two at a time, via an ipad, when really it would be so wonderful to take the ones from the shelves that look intriguing. Amazing that they have been around for so many years so they are obviously doing something right and fostering art and community. And like you, I also bought a sketchbook - which I never used! :P This quarantine period is probably a good opportunity to dig it out and start.