Capturing Landscape: The Archival and Documentary Properties of Handmade Paper

Robert Riter


A work of handmade paper is a complex object. Handmade papers are used as sites for writing and printing, supporting the work of book artists, letterpress printers, and calligraphists. Hand papermaking is also art and craft, with paper works displayed and communicated in gallery environments. The artifactual identity of these works is also varied, informed by the papermaker’s fiber selections, the cooking process deployed, and the environmental conditions during which sheets are pulled.

In addition to being craft, art, and surface objects, works of handmade papers also act as documentary objects, preserving the identities of their makers, the localities where they are made, and the geographies (local plants and fibers) that enable their making. In this paper I provide an archival reading of handmade paper. In this analysis I first identify the evidential and informational properties of handmade paper and the challenges associated with preserving and identifying these elements. Second, I draw attention to the documentary mechanisms inherent in hand papermaking as process, and handmade paper as object. When viewing, broadly conceived, works of handmade paper, including how a work sounds, smells, feels, and looks, the reader is engaging with geography. The experience is informed by the particular spaces and places that permitted the creation of the sheet; these factors include the fibers used, the weather conditions during making, and the particular practices adopted by the papermaker. In summary, handmade paper operates as an experiential record of place.

Not all hand papermakers explicitly assign a documentary function, however, acts of recording and preserving can be found in the objects they create. This research draws attention to these relationships and demonstrates how handmade paper preserves and supports engagement with geographic information. Methodologically, this research contributes to questions relating to the evaluation of non-traditional documentary forms, artificatual boundaries, and the archival aspects of material culture.


Dawson, Sophie, and Silvie Turner. A Hand Papermaker’s Sourcebook. New York: Design books, 1995.
Hiebert, Helen. Papermaking with Garden Plants & Common Weeds. Pownal, VT: Storey Publishing, 2006.
Lorente, Marie-Jeanne, and Vincent Decorde. The Art of Papermaking with Plants.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.


My name is Robert Riter. I am an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at The University of Alabama, where I coordinate the School’s archival studies area. I hold appointments in library & information studies and book arts, and teach archival studies and book history courses. My research is primarily historical, with specific interests in topics associates with the publication of original sources, materiality, intellectual/conceptual foundations of archival thought and practice, and the documentary/archival properties of book art.