The Daily Heller: Books as First Responders
Quarantine Public Library is an online publisher of free short downloadable books created by independent authors and artists. These mini books are printed on one sheet of paper, then folded into a zine-scaled book. QPL is another in a wide range of COVID-19–inspired entrepreneurial ventures, this one co-founded by Katie Garth, a Philadelphia-based printmaker and former graphic designer, and Tracy Honn, a Madison, WI–based printing history educator, artist and the former director of Silver Buckle Press. I spoke to the pair using social distancing protocols (i.e., email) to learn more about their responsive collaboration to the needs that we all have to create, share and expand horizons at this time of low expectations.
Has this been a brewing idea prompted by COVID, or a longer-term collaboration? Honn: The project came directly from the experience of being isolated at home during COVID-19. During a phone chat this spring I told Katie I’d always wanted to do an online exhibit of one-sheet eight-page books, and Katie, who has the technical chops to make something like that happen, said Let’s do it now, during COVID-19. We developed the idea quickly and invitations went to artists on May 21. We told artists: The books do not need to be COVID-19–related, but are naturally of their time.
Garth: Tracy has been enthusiastic about this book structure since we first met, when I worked as her printing assistant at the Silver Buckle Press in 2011. (She taught me the form so that I could teach it to a group of middle schoolers visiting the press.) Tracy had mentioned the idea several times in the years since, but casually reintroduced it in the initial weeks of sheltering in place. It had the potential to address a lot of things that were suddenly in short supply: meaningful public art and language, yes, but also encouragement, engagement and connection. I was still wrapping up my MFA at Tyler, but I asked if I could help build the project after graduation. Our collaboration has been a truly meaningful way for me to ease into life after grad school, and to establish new ways of working and being amidst shared uncertainty.
It’s a wonderful idea to do DIY books. What has the response been?
Honn: QPL is a place made for people to visit during the pandemic, to find a book that moves them, and take it away for free. To have an actual book the reader has to assemble it by printing, folding and cutting. The reader completes the work.
Reading something of-this-moment is appealing to people. These aren’t traditional books. The format may not be familiar to everybody, and that adds to the satisfying experience of making and reading them. The folded format is simple, but when you print and assemble a QPL book you have this aha moment when you understand how it works. These small-scale books can feel surprisingly powerful. When you have the actual book clutched in your hand to touch and feel, it’s rewarding.
We want people to send us pictures of the books they make!
Is it curated or do you take anything? What are the boundaries? Honn: It was pre-curated by selecting artists—people we already knew or whose work we admired, and artists were free to submit whatever they wanted within the constraints of the eight-page book format. We wrote and edited some of the blurbs and bios, and also proofread book copy and in a couple of cases sent work back for small corrections (spelling errors, not content). Our work and the artists’ work was free. The books in the library are free. We could afford to do this dreamy project because we are both at home and had the time for a labor of love.
Boundaries is a good word here. This project depended on trust. Katie and I did solid groundwork to think through what we wanted and how to ask artists to join us. We took care to first write and think clearly so artists could feel safe coming along with us on a venture that was new. We, in turn, trusted the artists to respond earnestly and whole-heartedly, and they did. Our job is to support them, to make a place for their work and present it to readers coming to Quarantine Public Library.
Honn: Artists were completely free to choose content. We invited artists and writers we thought would “get” the project. In our invitation to artists we asked: Do you miss browsing books and experiencing new art in person? So do we; so does almost everyone we know. We have an idea to help hold us over, and we want you to participate. We also told artists: To keep things fresh, there will be a short turnaround for you to send completed work. We expect the books to be loose, but you can be as tight as you want. Books can be visual and/or textual: silly, sad or funny. We are looking for work that is juicy and arresting—that’s why we are inviting you. The project had a peculiar and timely salience that appealed to its participants. The quick deadline and the weird urgency of this shared historical moment gave everyone the exhilarating feeling that this was worthwhile and meaningful.
Garth: One thing I love about this book structure is that it won’t be pigeonholed: It’s an object; it’s an image; it’s a print; it’s a book. That expansiveness lends itself to so many genres and approaches that it feels counterintuitive to exclude or emphasize any one in particular. I’m excited that each work’s brevity makes it more likely to reach someone who may not usually gravitate towards that kind of book.
Another strength of the form is that you can’t watch someone make it without wanting to try it yourself—and as soon as you learn it, you want to teach a third person. The books become a balm for digital fatigue even as they are digitally dispersed. The internet is the means to a tangible end here, instead of the relentless, abstract presence it has become for so many of us over the last few months.
Who is your audience and how do you attract them?
Honn: As we were working on QPL I was thinking about the audience being everyone from an artist alone in her rural studio somewhere to my 17-year-old granddaughter who lives in Brooklyn and has been participating in a lot of police protests. I hoped anyone looking at the books would see one piece that excited them. I love the breadth of the submissions. That QPL is also a stealthy way to bring book arts to people who have never heard of artists’ books or zines—that’s a bonus. We’ve been getting forwarded thank you emails from artists that their friends and family sent them after visiting QPL. I’ve been happy to hear that everyone from my husband’s barber (who he’s not seen in person for months!) to old family friends are enjoying the site.
Garth: We are learning who our audience is as the project spends more time in the world; we were surprised to have visitors from 42 states and 22 countries on our first day! I’m interested in the positive responses that seem to be coming from people just stumbling upon QPL. While it can be incredibly satisfying for a project to circulate among other artists, reaching a broader audience feels especially rewarding. Generally speaking, librarians love to share and printmakers love to distribute, so getting the word out (or reposting to Instagram) has been a natural impulse among our contributors and their peers.
Do you see QPL expanding either as an art or commercial project?
Honn: Immediately, our goal is to enjoy the launch and see how QPL is received. The library will grow, and we’ll be inviting more artists to participate. Meanwhile, we are evaluating the site’s tolerance to support growth and researching other tech options.
I’ve always loved that Bill Cunningham quote: “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” QPL has a noncommercial ethos. Most of my career was spent embedded in a research library,* and libraries—the idea of a book for every person—are in my blood.
*"Five Laws of Libraries" by S. R. Ranganathan:
Books are for Use
Every Reader His/Her Book
Every Book Its Reader
Save the Time of the Reader
The Library is a Growing Organism
Garth: We love the idea of taking something that might feel out of reach and giving it away for free, without limitation. To that end, I’m curious what potential future contributors may want to share, especially among artists whose work is often unaffordable for most. Profit is antithetical to our mission; digital equity feels much more urgent, especially as another school year will begin with no end in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why we are directing site donations to EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that connects low-income families to affordable internet service and computers.