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Celebrating the "special friends that live on our library shelves"

Betty and Edgar Sweren channel a shared love for books into decades of support for the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums
Posted June 25, 2018
  • Edgar and Betty Sweren receive a painting depicting her artist's book, "The Snake," during a May 2018 reception on the Homewood Campus.

  • Edgar Sweren, right, admires an artist's book rendering of the George Peabody Library.

  • A collection of artist's books on display in the Brody Learning Commons.

Books have been Betty Sweren's passion for about as long as she can remember. But it wasn't until a time in the 1970s, when she was hand-lettering X-Ray labels to help her husband, Edgar, prepare for his orthodontic boards, that she discovered her calling lay where letters become art.
"It was as if my hand was dancing on the page," recalls Betty, a 1982 Hopkins alumna. Thus began her career producing and collecting artist's books — interactive works of art that use the book itself as the medium. "Learning to make a book is powerful. [Creating artist's books] is different from storytelling; you're creating your own special world," says Betty, who was a longtime member of the Friends of the Johns Hopkins University Libraries Advisory Board.

Betty's artist's books are now part of private and museum collections, and she and Edgar have amassed more than 900 books in a collection of their own. But the Swerens — longtime supporters of the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums — derive particular joy from sharing those resources, along with their connections in the art world, to benefit Hopkins students, faculty, and researchers.

A passion for the arts, libraries, and others

"Betty is an aesthetic polymath — she loves many art forms," says Gabrielle Dean, the William Kurrelmeyer Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts. "She approaches all things 'book' and 'library' from a variety of angles ... she understands the role of libraries in university life and in democracies more generally, and she can speak about the beauty and power of books in the same breath."

"We feel we are guardians, not keepers, and we love to educate and help people enjoy these unique treasures created by the hands and hearts of awesome book artists."
Betty Sweren

The Swerens have taken a similar, multifaceted approach to their Hopkins giving. More than a decade ago, the couple endowed an annual contest that invites undergraduate and graduate students to collect and describe groups of 20 to 50 books and other items related to unique, personally meaningful topics. Since 2011, the annual Betty and Edgar Sweren Student Book Collecting Contest has produced four winners of the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, an accomplishment no other university has yet matched.

"Through the Sweren Book Collecting Contest we uncover the most extraordinary collections and some of the most fascinating people at the university," says Winston Tabb, the Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums. "We are deeply grateful to Betty and Edgar for this wonderful gift to the Hopkins community."

In early 2018, Betty and Edgar encouraged their friend, internationally renowned British book artist Paul Johnson, to offer his pop-up book collection to Hopkins and supported its acquisition by the Sheridan Libraries. During a May reception, Johnson's nearly three-foot-tall pop-up of the George Peabody Library stood alongside Betty's "The Snake" — a reptile-shaped book — during a student-curated installation of artist's books from the Hopkins collection.

"The most important part of Paul’s search was to find a home for his forty years of work that would be a living legacy," says Betty, adding that Hopkins edged out Oxford University for the collection's placement. "The enthusiasm of Winston Tabb and of Gabrielle Dean was a large part of making this happen."

"[Betty] has helped me to be more adventurous about investing in artist's books for the Hopkins collection, and more appreciative of the incredible variety of artist book forms. But maybe most important of all is her enthusiasm," Dean says. "It’s inspiring just to be along for the ride with Betty!"

Betty Sweren, second from left, shows Hopkins students an artist's book during the course she co-teaches with Phyllis Berger.

Influencing budding book artists

Betty's influence extends to the classroom. Phyllis Berger, a photography instructor in the Krieger School's Center for Visual Arts, teaches an elective course rooted in the artist's book tradition and asked Betty if she could bring a class to view her collection. After the visit, Berger invited Betty to come to a class — and Betty never left, Berger laughs. The two have co-taught the course since 2002.

"She is the heart and soul of our class," Berger says. "It is with her guidance that students begin to think like artists, seeing the relationship between image and text, bringing energy and style to each page of their books and taking their imagery from photo albums to works of art."

This spring, with support from a Mellon Foundation Arts Innovation Grant, they partnered with Homewood Museum for the course. Each student selected a room in the Federal-era house as muse for their own handcrafted artist’s book. Writing Seminars student Kiera Wolfe, A&S '18, said the words flowed immediately when she spied a gold harp in Homewood’s sun-drenched drawing room. The design elements, however, did not. But that changed when she visited the Swerens' collection of artist's books and, later in the semester, consulted with Betty herself.

"Betty made tweaks to move the eye on the page and helped with typeface," Wolfe says. "She definitely has a vision of how the books would come together, much more than we did."

For Betty and Edgar — whether it's introducing students to the process of bookmaking or inspiring them to think differently about what it means to collect books — joy is at the core of their relationship with Hopkins.

"We feel we are guardians, not keepers, and we love to educate and help people enjoy these unique treasures created by the hands and hearts of awesome book artists," Betty says. "These artifacts enrich our lives in so many ways. We do not think of them as books, but as special friends that live on our library shelves."

To learn more about the Sheridan Libraries and University Museums, or to make a gift, please contact Sylvia Eggleston-Wehr, associate dean for external affairs/development.