Armchair Travel: Watching the Signs Along the Way

Many of us may be focusing on stay-cations and armchair travel this summer. One of my favorite modes of seeing the world through others’ eyes is to try searching phrases and word combinations in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC). Although it yields a different kind of experience than one might encounter traveling in a vehicle to places familiar and unfamiliar, chance discoveries and attention-grabbing sights can still be had.

My odyssey actually started last spring, before leaves had returned to the trees and only a few crocuses had begun to bloom. Longing for some vicarious new growth, I typed signs of spring into the PPOC search box. Imagine my surprise when the signs that presented themselves were a series of roadside missives that, together, offered a rhyming message.

Retro Burma Shave signs, Route 66, Peach Springs, Arizona. Photos by John Margolies, 2003. The photos appear on two lines in the PPOC "gallery" display of search results.

Retro Burma Shave signs, Route 66, Peach Springs, Arizona. Photos by John Margolies, 2003. The photos appear on two lines in the PPOC "gallery" display of search results.

Retro Burma Shave signs, Route 66, Peach Springs, Arizona. Photos by John Margolies, 2003. The photos appear on two lines in the PPOC “gallery” display of search results.

My surprise may have been all the greater because of what I know about how search results often appear in PPOC. The default sequence of records is determined by relevance ranking: the system tries to prioritize descriptions that match best the words you type in. Relevance ranking is influenced by where words appear in the record and other factors. Although the cataloger had carefully included information in the titles that would help sequence the images properly, my experience has been that sometimes best-laid plans still don’t show related images quite in the sequence we’d expect. So to have these line up so nicely in the search results felt like a great treat.

What I learned with a little research was that, starting in the 1920s, Burma Shave was well known for posting roadside billboards that, in sequence, created a rhyming poem. I don’t recall ever seeing the signs in my travels through the U.S. But my search, which matched on “signs” and the “spring” in “Peach Springs,” where this particular set of signs appeared when John Margolies was photographing roadside attractions in 2003, offered complete armchair delight with the pleasures of serendipity on the road or off.

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