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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
Browse the biographical section of the Stereograph File and you might find stylized depictions of famous Americans, including John Brown and Frederick Douglass.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.
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.
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.
- See the Specific Subject File guide record for more information about the contents and arrangement of the file.
- Try browsing our online catalog for digitized items from the Specific Subject File.
- Read an earlier blog post that features the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information file and catch a glimpse of the Presidential File while revisiting scenes from the life of Theodore Roosevelt. A more recent addition to the Prints and Photographs Reading Room is heralded in a blog post about the Roll Call Photographs.
- Before visiting the reading room it may help to read our top tips for conducting research in the reading room.