What’s in all Those File Cabinets? Pictures for Browsing

In my first week as a reference librarian in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, I was told by several colleagues that it takes at least a decade to get to know the collection. No wonder: P&P’s collections contain nearly 16 million items.

A noteworthy number of those items are stored in the reading room. Having worked in five other special collections libraries, all of them with closed stacks, I was amazed to find that the Prints and Photographs Division reading room has actual collection material in it and— with some guidance from reading room staff— patrons are permitted to browse through it. What a revelation!

Browsing files in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, May 2017.

Take the Specific Subject File (SSF), which makes available some 20,000 photographs from various sources. Some of the contents have been digitized as researchers have purchased copies, but looking in the file lets you appreciate qualities of the digitized and un-digitized photos, alike.

Melissa Lindberg exploring the Specific Subject File in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Ryan Brubacher, May 2017.

Melissa Lindberg exploring the Specific Subject File in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Ryan Brubacher, May 2017.

Because it’s organized by subject, the Specific Subject File is suited to topical browsing.  Does fickle weather have you alternately thinking about a trip to the beach and a dusting of snow?

Long Beach pier & bathers. Photo by Guy Carleton Hovey, copyrighted 1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a19070

Long Beach pier & bathers. Photo by Guy Carleton Hovey, copyrighted 1905. Filed in SSF – Beaches — Cal. — 1905. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a19070

Zero weather in Skamokawa, Jan. 12, 1909. Photo by J.I. Eggman, 1909. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c13688

Zero weather in Skamokawa, Jan. 12, 1909. Photo by J.I. Eggman, 1909. Filed in SSF – Winter Scenes. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c13688

Researching the long history of protest in American cities? There is no shortage of such images in the Specific Subject File, though you may need to look in more than one place.

Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade. Photo by American Press Association, 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g05585

Youngest parader in New York City suffragist parade. Photo by American Press Association, 1912. Filed in SSF – Women — Politics and Suffrage — 1912. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g05585

Pueblos bring first protest since Lincoln. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, copyrighted 1923. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.05081

Pueblos bring first protest since Lincoln. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, copyrighted 1923. Filed in SSF – Indians of North America–Government Relations. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.05081

The connections among the reading room files are endless. For example, you can find images of Washington, D.C. in several different collections in the reading room.

Τhe Stereograph File reveals some aspects of life in our capital city that you’ve probably never pondered. Ever thought about the quality control work that went into producing paper money in the early twentieth century? Well, here you have a visual representation.

Inspecting sheets of paper money, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Washington, D.C. Photo on stereo card by Keystone View Company, copyrighted 1917. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02936

Inspecting sheets of paper money, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Washington, D.C. Photo on stereo card by Keystone View Company, copyrighted 1917. Filed in STEREO U.S. GEOG FILE – Washington, D.C.–U.S. Government Buildings–Bureau of Engraving and Printing. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s02936

Browse the biographical section of the Stereograph File and you might find stylized depictions of famous Americans, including John Brown and Frederick Douglass.

John Brown and Fred'k Douglas [i.e. Douglass]. Photo on stereo card by Littleton View Co., copyrighted 1891. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b40510

John Brown and Fred’k Douglas [i.e. Douglass]. Photo on stereo card by Littleton View Co., copyrighted 1891. Filed in STEREO BIOG FILE – Brown, John, 1800-1859. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b40510

Four stereograph viewers are available for reading room visitors to view these images in 3-D. Simply insert the stereograph into the viewer, look through the lenses and— voila!— you will be transported to another time and place.

Reference librarian Jon Eaker using a stereo viewer in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, May 2017

Reference librarian Jon Eaker using a stereo viewer in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, May 2017

Walk over to the U.S. Geographical file and you can browse by place. In the part of this file dedicated to the nation’s capital and referred to as Washingtoniana, I’m struck by the images of the Capitol-adjacent Library of Congress Jefferson Building when it was under construction.

Construction of the Northwest Court of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Photo, 1891 July 10. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b37063

Construction of the Northwest Court of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Photo, 1891 July 10. Filed in U.S. GEOG FILE – Washington, D.C.–Library of Congress–Jefferson Building–Construction–Exterior–1891. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b37063

Men putting in place the keystone of the S.W. clerestory arch of the rotunda of the Library of Congress. Photo, 1892 June 28. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51502

Men putting in place the keystone of the S.W. clerestory arch of the rotunda of the Library of Congress. Photo, 1892 June 28. Filed in U.S. GEOG FILE – Washington, D.C.–Library of Congress–Jefferson Building–Construction–Rotunda. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a51502

The glimpses of the few reading room files provided above hardly do justice to the breadth of the collections in the reading room. All told it contains more than a dozen collection groupings, including the heavily-used Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information Photograph Collection, the Civil War file and the Biographical File.

Browsing these collections is to be confronted with history in more ways than one. What you see in the collections— and how they are organized— reflects a particular place and time. That often means that the contents, history, and arrangement of the materials may be unexpected and even at times unsettling. Please feel free to ask questions during your visit. In my case, we’ll learn together.

One of the thousands of mounted photographs available for browsing in the FSA/OWI file in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room.<em> Washington (southwest section), D.C. Boy playing on a fence</em>. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942 Nov. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. <a href="//www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8d23464/?loclr=blogpic" target="_blank">//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d23464</a>

One of the thousands of mounted photographs available for browsing in the FSA/OWI file in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room. Washington (southwest section), D.C. Boy playing on a fence. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942 Nov. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d23464

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4 Comments

  1. Ingrid E. Albrecht
    May 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    This is a valuable treasure, a peek into our past.

  2. Jerry A. McCoy
    May 11, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    What a great idea to have stereoscope viewers available to patrons! Are they vintage or contemporary viewers?

  3. Barbara Orbach Natanson
    May 11, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    The four stereo viewers are vintage viewers. People really enjoy using them. We also have available some contemporary plastic “glasses” that can be used to get the 3-D effect. We hope you can make a visit to experience them firsthand!

  4. Drew Bishop
    May 15, 2017 at 8:36 am

    I have used the picture collection of the Library of Congress – in free promotional calendars which the company where I work gives away. The LOC is a fantastic resource for teachers, artists, film makers and students. Keep up your good work.

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