Barbara Page, MFA ’75 in her Trumansburg, NY studio.

Barbara Page, MFA ’75, Celebrates Her Love of Reading with Miniature Works of Art

An ardent bibliophile, Page interprets her ‘life list’ of memorable volumes onto library circulation cards

Once upon a time—as those who grew up before the age of bar codes and digital scanners recall—libraries kept track of their books using a system of paper index cards. Housed in sturdy wood or metal cases with multiple deep drawers, the “card catalog” told patrons what books the library owned and where on the shelves they could be found. And the “checkout cards”—tucked into pockets glued inside the front cover of each volume—were used to record who had borrowed a book; while on loan, those pockets would contain yet another card bearing a hand-stamped date indicating when it was due to be returned.

That bygone era of analog record-keeping serves as the inspiration for an ongoing project by artist Barbara Page, MFA ’75. An avid reader since childhood, Page has memorialized the act of consuming the written word through an extensive series of miniature artworks—created on vertical, lined, 3-by-5-inch checkout cards, some repurposed from her local library—each emblazoned with her impressions of a book or other work of literature.

Art cards by Barbara Page of three things she has read: Macbeth, Becoming, and Joy of Cooking
The cards Page uses include both those recycled from libraries (far right) and blanks she purchased. (Images provided)

The works comprise a variety of media including pencil drawings, découpaged photos, and ephemera like postage stamps and product labels. “I started collecting these cards and illustrating them just to remember books I’ve read, rather than keeping that information in journals I never looked at,” Page explains. “There are plenty of books I don’t illustrate, because I don’t really get a strong image from them.”

Page, who lives in the Village of Trumansburg outside Ithaca, has amassed more than 750 cards so far, posting them on her website and Instagram and displaying them at exhibits. Their inspirations range from childhood classics like Winnie-the-Pooh and Mary Poppins to such diverse contemporary works as Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming; the bestselling Anthony Horowitz mystery Magpie Murders; Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko, a National Book Award finalist; and (aptly) The Library Book by journalist Susan Orlean, which is both a true-crime tale about a notorious L.A. fire and a love letter to libraries as civic treasures.  

Hands holding art cards depicting four books including Roots, Lolita, and The Invention of Nature.
Page stores her hundreds of artworks in an antique library card cabinet. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Last spring, the art-and-design press Bauer and Dean published Book Marks: An Artist’s Card Catalog, a coffee table book that’s part memoir and part showcase for more than 400 of Page’s works—the story of her life told in prose and through her visual interpretations of books she has consumed during seven decades of reading.

“Imagine a library holding all the books you have ever read, books that helped shape who you are today,” she writes in the prologue. “Imagine the catalog for that library. It exists in your mind, much as the catalogs for many public libraries around the world now float in cyberspace.”

Art cards filed by year
Page’s media include ephemera such as maps and postage stamps. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Some of Page’s illustrations lean toward the literal: The Scarlet Letter card sports a bright red “A” and the typed words “SINISTER MINISTER,” while Lassie Come-Home comprises a photo of a collie and drawings of a map and a pocket watch.

Others are more enigmatic and require close knowledge of the text—like the card for Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye, which depicts part of the label from a package of toilet tissue and the phrase “4 sheets only.” (It’s a reference to the fact that in the book—a finalist for the 1989 Booker Prize—one parsimonious household imposes that limit for each trip to the bathroom.)

While most of Page’s cards are based on book-length works of fiction or journalism, there are some exceptions, like plays (Euripides’s Medea and Shakespeare’s Macbeth), Irma Rombauer’s classic Joy of Cooking, even a scuba diving manual.

Book Marks also features cards based on works by fellow Cornellians, including Diane Ackerman, MFA ’73, PhD ’79 (A Natural History of the Senses and The Zookeeper’s Wife); Junot Diaz, MFA ’95 (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao); Mollie Katzen ’72 (The Moosewood Cookbook); and E.B. White 1921 (Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). 

Art cards by Barbara Page of three books by Cornell authors (DIane Ackerman, E.B. White & Toni Morrison)
Page has created artworks memorializing books by other Big Red alumni. (Images provided)

Page houses her collection of miniature artworks in an apt vessel: a vintage card catalog case she found in a serendipitous moment that might have sprung from the pages of a novel.

“I had done 50 or 60 cards, and I needed something to put them in, and I knew that libraries were getting rid of their card catalogs,” she recalls. “So I thought, ‘I’ll go look in some antique stores and see if I can find one.’ And I rode my bike two blocks from my house and the very first place I went, I found one. So I thought, ‘Okay, this is predestined; it’s time to get going on this project.’”

Top image: Page at home in Trumansburg. (Photo by Jason Koski / Cornell University)

Published October 20, 2021


Comments

  1. Madeline Ramirez (Marrero), Class of 1986

    I love this article. The bookworm artist in me found it fun, inspirational, and hopeful for things reclaimed.

  2. Joan Ormondroyd

    Barbara is one of the most creative people I have ever known. This project is pure delight!

  3. Yesim Mushayandebvu

    So inspirational. Such a wonderful, creative way to express love of art and books.

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