Documents of the lost printmakers: only you can provide the information.

view larger image


Documents of the lost printmakers: only you can provide the information.


Thomson, John.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



Publication date



Conference paper



Country of context


Full text

Documents of the lost printmakers: only you can provide the information

Documents of the lost printmakers: only you can provide the information.
by John Thomson

As a librarian I am not concerned with prints as artworks (hopefully they will not be lost!) What I am concerned about is information about printmakers as people and artists.

Libraries are in the business of information. They collect it, organise it, preserve it and make it accessible. A traditional view of libraries is that they are full of books. But information comes in a multitude of formats and libraries collect them all. There is a range of visual materials such as prints, paintings, photographs, films and videos. There is aural material such as tapes, records and CDs. There is an increasing range of electronic formats — data bases, CD ROMs and videodiscs. There is unpublished material such as manuscripts, personal papers, letters, diaries etc. And traditional printed material — not just books, but journals, newspapers, pamphlets and ephemeral material.

It is the ephemeral material that is the subject of this paper.

The Documentation Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Research Library contains ephemeral material on art. The Research Library collects material on all aspects of Australian art from as many Australian sources as possible (including Australian artists overseas). Anybody who has made a contribution to the arts scene is of interest — not just artists, but art critics, art historians, art dealers, art teachers, gallery directors, curators etc. Material on arts organisations of all kinds is also collected — galleries, art schools, art societies etc. Details of prizes, competitions, awards, scholarships, conferences, seminars, summer schools, annual shows, biennales etc. is collected as well as items on general topics such as conservation, Aboriginal art, photography, museum techniques, architecture, religious art, stage design, textile fabrics, video art etc.

We also collect, to a lesser extent, similar information on the activities of overseas arts people and arts organisations.

The major part of the material in the national collection is on artists and exhibitions.

What is ephemeral material? Definitions are always a little vague and vary from institution to institution. It is usually material produced in small quantities for a particular occasion or event. It is physically flimsy, insubstantial in intellectual content and of varying format. For the National Gallery of Australia’s purposes we include:

- exhibition invitations ranging from photocopied sheets and postcards to full colour folded brochures

- media releases

- advertising material of all kinds including posters, press clippings

- small catalogues from single sheets to 14 page pamphlets (larger catalogues are treated as books and housed elsewhere in the Library)

- exhibition lists, guides to galleries etc.

The transitory nature of ephemera means that while it is readily available at the time of its production, it is very difficult to find later. The Research Library endeavours to collect as much current material as possible. As the National Gallery of Australia is a relatively new institution, the major part of the material in the documentation collection is from mid-1970s onwards. To give a solid base to the collection, the Library bought two large collections of overseas ephemera from private collectors and several smaller ones of Australian material. We do still buy some items, although prices are sometimes very high e.g. a four page 1920s catalogue from the Australian Painters-Etchers’ Society was being sold recently for $400.

The exact number of items in the documentation collection is unknown, but it is probably about 300,000. During 1991, 16,000 items were added.

Because of the sometimes flimsy nature and small size of items, great care is taken with their storage. Material relating to each person or organisation is kept in a mylar folder. Mylar is a clear plastic-like substance, but unlike plastic it has been specially formulated for storage of paper and does not have any chemical reactions with it. Mylar folders are then stored in archival quality acid-free boxes.

The importance of the documentation collection cannot be too highly rated. A senior curator at the gallery has described it as ‘the jewel in the Library’s collection’. Each item stored is a unique piece of information. A simple exhibition invitation will, at very least, record that an exhibition by an artist or group of artists took place at a certain gallery on a certain date. It may contain more than that — a biography of the artist, a photograph of the artist, a statement by the artist, an illustration of a work or works (maybe in colour), a list of works in the exhibition, etc. This may be the only record of that exhibition. If it is not kept at the time, the information could be lost for ever. We must collect not only for today’s purposes but we must preserve for the future. If we don't do it today, tomorrow it will be too late!

What can individual printmakers do to ensure that they do not become ‘lost’? Individuals can encourage their exhibiting gallery to send all material associated with the exhibition to the National Gallery of Australia Research Library. Alternatively the artists can send it direct. Not only will the Research Library preserve it and make it available for research, it will help to disseminate the information.

Exhibition catalogues of a substantial nature are catalogued onto the Australian Bibliographical Network (ABN), a large data base containing details of Australian and overseas material held in Australian libraries. ABN is accessible from most libraries throughout Australia. In addition all art exhibition catalogues, regardless of size are indexed in List of Australian Art exhibition catalogues which I compile and which is distributed by the Arts Libraries Society/Australia and New Zealand. An electronic version on CD ROM or floppy disk is soon to be released by Discovery Media of Sydney as part of their Australian visual arts database [AVAD].

There is a simple thing which individuals can do which would be an enormous boon to future researchers. They can ensure that all material published for an exhibition carries the full date and year and the name of the issuing gallery. I see an amazing amount of material that has a date such as 23 August and no year and/or has no gallery name on it. Material such as this is very difficult, or sometimes impossible, to file correctly and preserve. Its value as research material is also diminished.

Artists may also like to consider what will happen to their private papers — their diaries, correspondence, contracts, photographs, scrap books, sketch books and records of all kinds, when they no longer need them. They should consider donating them to a public institution. The National Gallery of Australia has the Australian Art Archive which contains the papers of many artists. The National Library of Australia, State and gallery libraries in each capital city or even your local public library’s local studies collection are other institutions which may be interested in your papers. Large, valuable or important collections of material may be donated under the Tax Incentives Scheme.

My final plea is: do not become a lost printmaker. Ensure that information about you and your work is deposited, preserved and available for future use.

Material may be sent to:
Documentation Collection
National Gallery of Australia Research library
GPO Box 1150

For further information contact:
John Thomson
Deputy and Acquisitions Librarian
Telephone: (06) 271 2535
Fax: (06) 273 2155

© John Thomson, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.