New exhibition celebrating the artistic and social significance of alphabets

Alphabets Alive!  

19 July 2023 – 21 January 2024 
Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford  


The Bodleian Libraries presents Alphabets Alive! – a new exhibition where art, alphabets and the book meet, opening at the Weston Library on 19 July. From fifteenth-century horn-books and colourful children’s ABC books, to the artist’s book, something magical happens when letters and the book become the raw material of art.  

Curated by Robert Bolick, collector of artists’ books and curator of the ‘Books On Books’ website, Alphabets Alive! presents over 150 works which celebrate or utilise the alphabet as source material: manuscripts, prints, posters, sculpture, alphabet books and, especially, artists’ books in their many shapes, sizes, colours, materials and languages. 

Visitors will encounter medieval and modern bestiaries, miniature and monumental books, alphabets made by Renaissance designers and alphabets made by artificial intelligence; abecedaries of human bodies and ABCs made from beachcombed rocks. Books of exceptional calligraphic beauty appear alongside geometrically precise typographic design. Visitors can trace how the centuries-old alphabet or ABC book (traditionally designed to teach children to read, through the simple yet effective design of presenting letters of the alphabet alongside corresponding images and/or words and rhymes), has influenced more recent artist’s book styles and alphabet books for adults, which use the simple structure to address important issues and messages, such as social activism. Unusual formats include paper engineering pop-ups, flag books, tunnel books, volvelles and accordion books, as well as books transforming letters into fictional characters in adventure stories.  

The exhibition cases are structured around the alphabet, with the section “A is for Ox”, featuring representations in children’s books, sculptural objects and artists’ books which show the pictorial origins of the alphabet. This section shows how early writing relied on pictures as symbols for objects and over time these images evolved into abstract “shapes for sounds” that formed the basis of our modern alphabetic systems. In the section “B is for Babel”, artists’ books and children’s books present writing systems from runes to Cherokee to remind viewers that there is not one alphabet but many, and that alphabets like animals can become endangered, even extinct. In a colourful case dedicated to animal alphabets, visitors will see how animals in particular provide endless inspiration to alphabet artists.  

The exhibition will also show how alphabet artists enlist their works as tools for activism. By diminishing one letter in his Paper Cut Alphabet (2023), Kyiv-based artist Yevhen Berdnikov makes a powerful statement on the invasion of Ukraine. Works such as Arial Robinson’s The Modern Day Black Alphabet and Wendy Ewald’s American Alphabets confront racism in a joyful and educational way.

Curator Robert Bolick said:

Alphabets Alive! at the Bodleian Libraries celebrates the enjoyment to be had from the visual and plastic arts that engage the alphabet and the book as sources of inspiration. We hope that visitors will find among the horn-books and artists’ books – alphabet blocks and alphabet books – prints, posters and sculpture – the magic of alphabets come to life.

At the end of the exhibition, the works on display and others from the Books On Books Collection will be donated to the Bodleian Libraries. These will swell our collection of artists’ books and children’s books by several hundred, and offer multiple new and exciting research channels.  

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian and Director of Gardens, Libraries and Museums at the University of Oxford, said:

Through this exhibition, we hope to encourage a greater appreciation of the alphabet’s historic and cultural significance through the ages, and highlight its use as a creative linguistic canvas, in order to both educate, enlighten and entertain people of all ages. Alphabet books are often thought of as being ‘just for kids’, but visitors to our show at the Bodleian will discover this could not be further from the truth! 

A rich and varied programme of free public events will be held in tandem with the exhibition, including Alphabets Alive! Family Fun workshops taking place every Wednesday throughout the school summer holidays. These workshops are drop-in, and free to all. Attendees will have the opportunity to explore alphabets through hands-on creative activities including LEGO printing, collaborative ABC posters, magic anamorphic alphabets, and learning to repair their books at the newly established ‘book hospital’. 

Families and children in particular will be able to read and enjoy copies of many alphabet books  from the exhibition in a special pop-up library  which is open every day in Blackwell Hall.

Also taking inspiration from alphabets and the exhibition, visitors will be able to explore buildings, collections and activities in the ‘A to Z of the Bodleian Libraries’ from Friday 8 – Sunday 10 September as part of Oxford Open Doors. From architecture to zines, visitors can take behind-the-scenes tours, discover the exhibitions, create a unique artwork, view collections up close or print a keepsake in this special event at the Weston Library, Bodleian Old Library and other selected libraries across the city. 

Alphabets Alive! is open at the Weston Library from 19 July 2023 – 21 January 2023.  

For further information or to speak to Robert Bolick, please contact Mae Cuthbertson ( 

Notes to editors

Bodleian Libraries Press Office 
Telephone: 07718 118141 

The Press Office is open Monday – Friday,  9am – 5pm. For out-of-hours queries, please leave a message and email