A Brief History of Artists' Books
The first forerunner to contemporary artists' books is probably the British artist William Blake, who worked in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Blake was a poet, painter and printmaker. He wanted to integrate his visual and written work. While Blake produced traditional format books, he was radical in his desire to integrate the text and visuals on each page. He developed a new printing method that allowed for this integration.  What is especially notable about Blake is his role as a predecessor of the sentiments expressed by book artists of the 1960's. Blake was "seeking a means of bringing the production of illustrated texts under his own control so that he could become his own publisher, independent of commercial publishers and letterpress printers."  This independence is key to the creation of an artist's book.
While Blake seems a key figure in the history of contemporary artists' books, he is often overlooked in the literature, and the first suggestion of the book format combined with the work of a visual artist is credited to France in the 1890's. The Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard was paramount in the use of the book format to showcase the work of an artist, the livre d'artiste.  (Literally artist's book, but now the French term is always employed to describe this format if created currently.) The livre d'artiste took advantage of the art market created by the newly rich middle class (bourgeoisie). These books often contained original prints by a well-known artist, illustrating a classic text, in a fine binding. These books maintained the "standard distinction of image and text"  and thus were not true artists' books by today's concept of the term. But these books were radical at the time in their first attempts to unify text and image, and to give the images as much prominence as the text. A book of this nature made today is merely following a codified model -- an expected presentation and format. As these livres were market driven, they were not a means to promote a voice or opinion, nor were they accessible to a wide market because of their cost.
Around the same time period, artists, writers, and political thinkers were publishing pamphlets, posters, and magazines expressing their avant-garde ideas. The roles often overlapped or worked in conjunction: the artist/writer/activist used one set of skills to further the ambitions of a collaborator with another set of skills. While these items were not books, per se, they set the stage for a new way of thinking about and using a craft that had existed for centuries. 
The Russian avant-garde seems to be the first hotbed of activity for radical new uses of the book format.  Beginning in the early 1910's the Russian Futurists began making books as art, in much the same spirit of the 1960's in America: using readily available (and cheap) materials and methods of creation, new approaches to the combination of text and images, a somewhat irreverent attitude towards the establishment, and confirmation of the validity of experimentation and innovation without boundaries or definitions. 
Typography became the next arena of innovation. The merging of text and image was radical. Now the text itself was manipulated to express ideas visually as well as literally spelling out the message. The Italian Futurist (1910's) and German Bauhaus (1920's and 30's) movements were both instrumental in this aspect. 
The photograph also contributed to contemporary artists' books. Nineteenth century travel albums had an "implied narrative" that influenced twentieth century photographers and book artists.  The New Realism movement in Germany (1920's) produced many photographic books. While these works were commercially printed, they were based on the purposeful use of sequence with which to create meaning within the book format. 
The Dada movement (late 1910's, early 1920's) in Europe used books as a means of expression, and their "ethical and political concern for the function of art in society" is a precursor to the American idea behind using books as art during the 1960's. 
In Europe Post-WWII and in the early 1960's here in America, a surge of artists' books in the contemporary notion began to emerge. (What is ironic is that the previously discussed movements were not totally in vogue at this time, and the new makers of books may not have known of their predecessors.)  The improvements in technology (photocopy and offset printing vs. hand set type and lithography) not only allowed economic ease of access to a means to produce books, but played right into the ideas of a "democratic" form of art, with complete control over production and distribution.
In the next two decades, artists' books were influenced by trends in the art world: the prominence of sculpture in the 1970's and installation art in the 1980's.  From here to the present, artists' books have continued to be made and continued to be misunderstood because of their undefinable nature. As we think back to William Blake and the livre d'artiste, we can see how a radical new form became codified over time. The shifting nature of contemporary artists' books has allowed them to participate in each new wave of ideas. A definition would thwart the one unifying factor through this century: the malleability of the form that makes it applicable in each time period. While each livre d'artiste is a beautiful piece of work, it is a static format. Let's keep the definition of artists' books open, and let the exploration continue.
A Brief History of the Book Format
While most histories of artists' books focus primarily on the last 40 years, I believe the history of the book itself is just as crucial. Most histories focus on the Western world, but the East has contributed some very important techniques that every contemporary artist, in fact every person, uses.
Contemporary artists' books could never have come into being without many centuries of experimentation with form, technique and materials. As soon as people began to draw and then write, they wanted a surface to work on that was more portable than a wall in a cave or other dwelling. The book as we know it took many centuries and the combined knowledge of several cultures to be born.
In the East, books are thought to have been in use as early as 3000 years ago.  Bamboo, wood or palm leaves of equal length and width were fastened together with a string run through a hole in each section. These blind books resemble the venetian blinds many people use in their homes today. Eastern cultures also used a fan structure to record and store information in a specific order. The method is similar to the blind in the use of slats of equal width and length, but they are now held together at a fixed point (not along a string or cord). This point can be at the end or the middle of the grouping. The Chinese also used the scroll form.
In 105 AD the Chinese invented paper. This material was flexible and strong. A new form of book was created, the concertina or fold book. Here one sheet, or several glued into one, was folded onto itself. It could be read by flipping each fold (like pages) or opened to see the entire length. The book had hard covers on the ends to protect the paper. The Chinese also knew how to print multiple images from a single source (woodblock) and had experimented with movable type (ceramic) several hundred years before the Western world. 
In the West, clay tablets were made as early as 4000 BC in Mesopotamia.  Then the Egyptians created a way to make a writing surface with the papyrus plant. These sheets were light compared to the clay, but were too brittle to be folded, and thus were rolled into scrolls for storage. The Greeks and Romans adopted the use of papyrus. The Greeks and Romans also wrote on thin pieces of wood covered with a smooth coat of wax. These surfaces were reusable by heating and smoothing the wax. The Romans drilled holes along one side of the tablets and linked them together with cord or leather. This is the birth of the Western codex, the form of most books we use everyday.
When the supply of papyrus (only available in Egypt) became scarce in Europe, a new writing surface was created in Turkey: parchment. Parchment is sheep or goat skin scraped to be sooth and thin. If calfskin is used it produces a superior product and is called vellum. This material was foldable and a new way to bind was developed. Now groups of pages were folded and nested together, holes punched through the fold, and the sections sewn together. Stiff wooden covers were used to keep the parchment from warping. Now the codex form is even closer to present day.
Paper took a long time to reach the Western world. First it came to the Arabs around 800 AD and to Egypt in 900 AD. From there the knowledge went to Spain around 1100 AD and then to Italy in the late 1200's. (In 1276, Fabriano, Italy, began its still world famous paper production.) Wide spread use of paper was not until the 1400's. 
With the wide spread use of paper, books became cheaper and thus more accessible. The invention of movable type made with metal and used with a press in 1450 by Johannes Guternberg in Mainz, Germany, set the stage for the modern era. Many copies of the same work could be made easily and be affordable to people other than the rich. With the rise of public education, and thus literacy, books were in demand and now printed in the vernacular (not just classical Latin).
During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries a wave of inventions pushed the book closer to its modern production methods. In France in the early 1700's a way to make paper from wood fibers, instead of cotton or rag, was invented. The new paper did not last as long, but was quicker to produce. The age of the machine changed bookmaking forever. A papermaking machine was invented around 1800. Machines that set the type as well as print it were invented and constantly improved. Then a machine that actually bound the pages and attached the cover was invented. There was no longer a need for hand craftspeople, but for those who could run and repair the machinery.  The book format became about speed and the lowest cost of production.
In the late 1800's the Arts and Crafts Movement protested the cheaply made item and promoted handcrafted works. William Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in England to produce beautiful, well-crafted books as part of this movement. From here we can easily see how the livre d'artiste comes into the history of the book and leads to contemporary artists' books.
Contemporary artists' books combine the Eastern and Western traditions. Artists' books often combine several of the basic forms of the book, just as they often combine several media. The history of the book was a struggle to find the best format and materials to create a method that is cheap and easy to produce. While artists' books work to defy the codification of the book format, the experimentation throughout history can now inspire contemporary artists in their exploration of new ways to use the book.
This was only a brief run down. For further information on the history of the book and related topics:
- Literary Resources -- Bibliography and History of the Book maintained by Jack Lynch.
- Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: The Printing Press and a Changing World "traces the development of the printed book."
- Is It a Book? - History by Karen Drayne, Barbara Davison, and Emily-Jane Dawson.
- The Book: an introduction by Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild.
1. Jane Turner, ed., The Dictionary of Art, vol. 4 (London: Macmillan Publishers, Ltd., 1996), 117.
3. Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists' Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995), 3.
4. Ibid., 4.
5. Ibid., 45.
6. Ibid., 47.
7. Ibid., 49.
8. Ibid., 52, 58.
9. Ibid., 61.
10. Ibid., 62.
11. Anne Moeglin-Delcroix, "Bibliophilisms: the Multiple and the Unique," in Livres d'artistes/Livres-objets (Artists' books/Book objects) (Paris: C.E.R.P.M., 1985), [unpaged].
12. Drucker, 63.
13. Ibid., 13.
14. Kropper, Jean G. Handmade Books and Cards. (Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, 1997), 2.
15. Ibid., 6.
16. Ibid., xii.
17.Levarie, Norma. The Art and History of Books. (New York: Da Capo, 1968), 67.
18. Kropper, 9.