5th size book adventure

This is going to be the first in a series of posts about a project I am currently involved in: the 5th Size Book Adventure based at Newcastle Central Library. I am one of a group of lead artists on this Arts Council England funded project, commissioned to share my experience with the participants and make new work, the development of which will be visible for the participants to engage with as they wish. There are around 20 participant artists who are all creating work in whatever medium they use (and it is wide-ranging) in response to the 5th size book collection. They are also recipients of a programme of professional development sessions. All the work will be presented in November in an exhibition in the library itself.

What is a fifth sized book? There are various different ways of classifying book sizes. Most library books, in the UK at least, are classed as 1st size (up to 27cm). There are second, third and fourth dimensions and then anything over 63cm is classed as fifth size.

At Newcastle Library the fifth size book collection is an eclectic mix of subjects, sizes, formats, ages and states of repair. The shelves of third, fourth and fifth size books are all out of access to the general public and the main thing that unites them is their non-conformity with the more standard book sizes on the standard library shelves. It struck me, when being shown the collection, and whilst walking past the area where newspapers are collected and stored (for 1 month after publication), that newspapers are a more ephemeral version of over-sized books. The local newspapers, the Journal and the Chronicle, therefore might be considered part of the collection.

To be invited to take a whole collection of books on such wide-ranging subject matter as religion, architecture, Shakespeare, poetry, history, atlases, dictionaries and many more is a pretty wide starting point. Some might choose one particular book, either by careful consideration or picked at random. The subject matter of that book might take one off on all sorts of creative journeys. Some might decide to focus on the collection as a whole; its physicality; the fact that it is hidden away from public view. Others might concentrate on the whole idea of scale: large scale, possibly small scale, even changes in scale.

I picked a few volumes off the shelves for a closer look: The Complete Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer; One Day in the World’s Press; Goethe’s Faust (this had a library stamp on every page); Illustrated Catalogue of Bookbinding. The borrowing history in the front of this last one was interesting because it was first borrowed on 20th August 1904, recorded with handwriting in pencil. It was then borrowed 18 times during the next 30 years. On 5th September 1949 it was borrowed and the record was made with a stamped date for the first time. It was borrowed five more times until the last recorded date stamp on 26th May 1966.

After this first visit I listed the things that had jumped out at me:




Gaps – views through to more books

Books leaning

Different angles

Piles of books


White Gloves (some of the books are fragile but we were actually given gloves to protect us from dusty and disintegrating covers)

Worn covers

Embossed spines


Book cloth


Split covers

Too fragile to open

Dust and staining from perishing covers

Worn and grubby


Greys, blacks, browns

Bubble wrapped

String holding one book together

Gold lettering

Pattern and texture on spines

Massively varying subjects

Ridged spines

Curled corners

Loose edges of spine

28 thoughts on “5th size book adventure

  1. Very interesting. I have a fascination with old books as I ‘alter’ them and old books with dated stamps in them – there’s a history to their borrowing. Your list could become a poem 🙂 I look forward to seeing what you create!

  2. Sounds like a very open ended project for the artists with many results possible. Professional development perks included sounds very worth while. Will be very interested to hear more.

  3. Having just visited the Long Room (I think my favorite room in the world) at Trinity College in Dublin for the second time, this post makes my heart beat faster. I love your list of impressions….especially the ‘string’ holding one book together. It is the visuals and the feelings of these spaces that move me the most.

  4. What an interesting project …..and beautiful books to be inspired by …they do not even need to be opened!
    Look forward to seeing progress – thoughts and work ….
    Ann x

  5. What a great field to work with……there are so many possibilities…….I am really interested in your progress.

  6. What a fabulous project! Inspired that the library has set up this commission, jealous as I would love to have access to those books and fascinated to see what you do. I like your initial recordings that reads as a fragment poem.

  7. What a great project for you and your fellow artists. I would be so torn as to where to go with it. I’d probably use fabric as that is what I enjoy most. I can’t wait to see what develops.

  8. A recent bursary to create an Artist Book that, along with others, will be exhibited in a Tree-House Library, currently under construction, has brought me to discover your work – what a coincidence to hear of your project – I shall certainly be following with interest.

  9. Really interesting to read your first post on the Fifth Size Book Adventure. I found it incredibly difficult to decide on just one book as the inspiration for my work. The Dürer prints book was one I considered but realised when at home contemplating the images I’d photographed that they were apocalyptic scenes which I felt would lead me into too dark a place for an exhibition in the library!
    I also was drawn to a book of North Sea charts, volumes about 19th century public works, early railways and locomotives, views of ruined medieval priories and abbeys in Yorkshire, and a geophysical survey of Yorkshire, as well as the volume about late 19th century Japan that I decided would be The One.
    I look forward to seeing more of your work.

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