Hayden Library exhibit explores the objectivity of books

Friday, November 20, 2020

Suzy Morgan began making books in high school — not writing or editing them: making them.

“I’m less interested in what the words say and more interested in what kind of paper a book is printed on — what does that feel like — and how the binding is done,” said Morgan, who manages the Conservation Lab in Hayden Library, where she repairs and preserves books and other materials as the ASU Library’s conservator.

Morgan is the creator of a new library exhibit called “What Is a Book?” that looks at books through a material lens, ignoring their intellectual value and instead appreciating them as things — made objects that come in a variety of formats and reveal fascinating histories of ownership, artistry, classification, craftsmanship and culture.

“There are so many ways a book can be,” said Morgan. “It can really go a lot of different directions.”

Morgan’s exhibit, on the ground floor of Hayden Library in Tempe, displays the full spectrum: big books shelved with tiny books, books that once were books but aren’t books anymore, pop-up books, artists’ books, and books with flaps and strings and other moving parts.

There is even a book earring.

“I’m not one of those people who has a favorite song or a favorite food. I like the variety,” said Morgan, who sees books as the ultimate cultural comfort item.

Even when unread, the presence of books — their colors, shapes, smells and textures — is meaningful to many. (Recently, the popular Oregon-based bookseller Powell’s City of Books released a book-scented fragrance.)

“Some books I have at home I’ve never read but someday will read,” said Morgan. “Some books literally become furniture. I have kept books only because they held up my monitor at the right level.”

Things she found in books

Morgan describes the Conservation Lab as a place of constant discovery, where she and her staff engage with a constant steam of diverse materials flowing in and out. (Morgan’s Twitter feed offers a glimpse of the work that gets carried out in the lab.)

All of the things people routinely shove into books, she says, eventually find their way out.

“I have a whole file of fun ephemera — math homework, postcards, Polaroids,” she said.

But what she really loves discovering are old books in fine condition — books that have somehow managed to survive without a scratch.

“I like finding a book that looks exactly like it did when it was made 200 years ago,” said Morgan. “Part of this exhibit is pulling back the curtain on the making of books. A lot of students are probably not familiar with the technology, or even the history of how books are made, and also how they fall apart.” 

The exhibit “What Is a Book?” will be on display in Hayden Library through January 2021.