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History from A to Z

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Where in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room can you find file cabinets full of photographs of everything from “Animals in Human Situations” to “Zoological Gardens,” from “Airplanes” to “Yachts and Yachting,” and from “Avalanches” to “Winter Scenes”? The Specific Subjects File (SSF). These 20,000  photographs of objects, events, activities, and structures, arranged by topical headings, now enjoy expanded online access thanks to the work of Prints & Photographs cataloger Antoinette O’Bryant.

Photograph shows the Star of Alaska sailing with full sails.
Star of Alaska, Photo copyrighted 1929.
Photograph shows bust photographs of twenty-five prominent African American men.
Negro lawyers and other historic characters of Mississippi. Photo compiled and published by L.W. West Manaway, copyright 1909.

Summing up her experience working with the SSF as “an interesting trip through history from A-Z,” Antoinette matched up photos with digital files and with skeletal catalog records. Then, she put some flesh on the bones of these records providing “access points for subject headings, name authorities, dates, summaries, and copyright information.”

Asked to select a couple of her favorite discoveries in the SSF, Antoinette chose the two images above. On the left, the sailing ship “Star of Alaksa” “combines my love of ships and cruising and my favorite place to visit (Alaska).” On the right, the historical significance  of the “Negro lawyers and other historic characters of Mississippi” resonated with Antoinette. 

Woman in cowgirl attire on horseback.
Montana Girl. Photo copyrighted by Adams, 1909.
Man in tuxedo and woman in wedding gown dancing.
Mlle. Gaby Deslys(?) . Photo copyrighted by White Studio, 1913.

I couldn’t resist adding two examples of my own (above). “Montana Girl,” on the left, was found filed under “Cowgirls,” but she looks to me more like a confident turn-of-the-century rancher. On the right, the photo of the merry couple lives in the same drawer, under “Dancing” and dates from roughly the same time, as the Montanan — vivid examples of the diversity found in the SSF.

Learn More:

  • Immerse yourself in a fuller description of the SSF as found in the Specific Subject Filing Series Guide Record.
  • Explore the range of images in the SSF, which is a part of  the Prints & Photographs Catalog collection  Miscellaneous Items in High Demand. This rather generic-sounding category consists of more than 80,000 descriptions of individual images from a variety of the Division’s holdings. The images have been singled out for description because copies were requested for a publication, exhibition, or other special project that increased demand for the pictures. A search on “SSF” retrieves over 6,000 photos which can be visually skimmed by employing the grid view display option.
  • Peruse the rich resources gathered in the Cataloging & Digitizing Toolbox, featuring cataloging, project planning, digitization, and insights into what we’ve learned in Prints & Photographs from our experience providing access to pictorial material.


  1. From South Africa: The Privilege of writing history is that history is already written and that it has already written itself in every manner conceivable.LADY (Coetzee-Snyman) Jennifer J C Thompson nee Coetzee (Mrs):2013.7.27

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