During a long career at Walker Art Center, librarian Rosemary Furtak built an internationally known collection of eccentric books designed by contemporary artists.

The books, which complement the Walker's collection of 20th-century avant-garde art, won Furtak a 2011 distinguished service award from the Art Libraries Society of North America, the field's highest honor.

Furtak, 69, died at her Minneapolis home on Sunday of cancer.

"She was a wonderfully engaging combination of sweetness, intelligence and dignity combined with a sardonic sense of humor," said artist Phil Docken, a longtime friend and a former Walker staff member who shared Furtak's enthusiasm for baseball. "She kept up with the Twins, right to the end," he said.

Darsie Alexander, the Walker's chief curator, credited Furtak with building the museum's artists' book collection "up from ground zero."

"She was one of the first librarians to really understand the book format as an artistic outlet," said Alexander.

Sculptor Sol LeWitt launched Furtak's venture in 1984 with a gift of $500, which he told her to use for the purchase of "artists' books," then a fairly novel art form that could be had cheaply. She bought key pieces by Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle, Dieter Roth and Lawrence Weiner, as well as Minnesota artists. About 100 of the books were showcased in "Text/Messages," a 2008 show that Furtak organized with Walker curator Siri Engberg.

"She was a real cheerleader for the field," said Engberg, who credited her with a "fantastic eye" for quality, financial savvy and a special commitment to the Twin Cities book-making community. "She managed to bring in on a very limited budget some things that are now historic treasures."

The Walker named the artists' book collection in Furtak's honor when she retired in April after 29 years. The collection is a subset of the museum's 35,000-volume art reference library.

Born and raised in Schuyler, Neb., Furtak earned a B.A. in art from the College of St. Mary in Omaha in 1965 and an M.A. in art history from the Dominican University at Villa Schifanoia in Florence, Italy in 1974.

She joined the Walker in 1983 after completing a post-graduate residency at the library of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She earned her master's degree in library science in 1982 at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Furtak was an associate professor of art history and studio art and co-director of the Hillmar Art Gallery at the College of St. Mary in Omaha from 1975 to 1981. Before that she taught high school in Iowa, North Dakota and Colorado.

She is survived by sisters Mary Pat Safranek of Fort Smith, Ark.; Kathy Furtak of Schuyler, Neb.; John Furtak of Nelson, New Zealand, and Stephen Furtak of San Diego.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Olaf Catholic Church, 215 S. 8th St., Minneapolis.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431