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Behind the Scenes: Bringing Pictures to the Public

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Below is an interview with Jon Eaker, Reference Librarian in the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

Jon viewing stereograph cards in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Melissa Lindberg, 2020.

Melissa: Thanks for agreeing to an interview, Jon. Can you fill us in on your background, and what led you to become a reference librarian here in the Prints & Photographs Division?

Jon:  Well, I’ve always liked libraries. I got my undergraduate degree in computer science with a specialization in computer graphics, then decided to get a graduate degree in library science. Library schools often offer a lot of opportunities to focus on technology, but despite my background in computers I decided to go a different route.

After graduate school one of the jobs I applied for was in the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress, and I got the job. When I was working in the Conservation Division I worked on a lot of Prints & Photographs Division collection materials and really liked them. An announcement came up for a reference job in the Prints & Photographs Division, and I applied. I’ve now worked in the Prints & Photographs Division for over ten years.

I’ve always been drawn to visual information, so it makes sense that I work with visual materials in my current job. I really like Wladyslaw Benda’s artwork as well as industrial images, so the below illustration of an oversized, grotesque, smoking machine is one of my favorite items in the Prints & Photographs Division’s collections. I also find it interesting that it was published with an article by German General Erich Ludendorff, explaining why he thought disarmament measures, which were being discussed at the time, wouldn’t work.

Smoking monster engine destroying town, 1922. Drawing by Wladyslaw T. Benda.
Smoking monster engine destroying town. Drawing by Wladyslaw T. Benda, 1922.

Melissa: What are some of your responsibilities as a reference librarian in the Prints & Photographs Division?

Jon: As you know, we answer a lot of questions, by phone, at the Prints & Photographs Reading Room reference desk and through our Ask a Librarian service. My subject specialization is in military history and the history of technology, so I answer a lot of questions about our collections that relate to those topics.

I have to share at least one World War I item, like the one below. I really like this photo because, unlike many WWI photos, it’s not staged or posed. It also appears to show trench digging in process. The most striking thing about it is that it shows African American infantry soldiers with a white work crew, at a time when many African Americans were assigned to labor battalions instead of combat units.

302nd Eng. repairing road over trench and 92nd Div. (colored) machine gunners going into action, Argonne Forest, France. 1918.
302nd Eng. repairing road over trench and 92nd Div. (colored) machine gunners going into action, Argonne Forest, France. 1918.

Doing reference work provides a lot of opportunities to learn about different images and follow interesting research leads. I often find myself wondering what exactly is going on in an image. There’s just something about the photo, below, of a despondent looking man, alone in a bar on a Saturday night, with his head down and arms around a kitten, also with its head down, that jumps out at me. Also, so many questions like, did he bring the cat or did it just jump on the counter to join him?

Man at the bar on Saturday night. Craigville, Minnesota. Photo by Russell Lee, 1937.

Reference staff members also work on projects to make the collections more accessible, though the work varies from person to person. For example, we have some materials that had been taken out of service over the years due to their condition, but I have been working on some simple rehousing solutions that enable us to safely make them accessible to researchers in the reading room again. I am also the Prints & Photographs Division liaison to the Conservation Division specifically for albums.

Lately I’ve been working on the Engineering Societies Library (ESL) Collection, picking up where a former staff member left off, expanding and finishing a finding aid about the collection. When I finish we should have a more complete idea of what the collection includes.

The drawing below comes from the ESL collection. It is from the original construction of the Croton Aqueduct in New York, late 1830-early 1840s. Unlike most architectural drawings, on this one they included two of the workers building the aqueduct. It gives you an idea of size as well as how it was constructed.

<em>Croton Aqueduct, (Westchester Co., New York). Method of tunnelling in earth.</em> Drawing by John B. Jervis, chf. engineer, between 1837 and 1842
Croton Aqueduct, (Westchester Co., New York). Method of tunnelling in earth. Drawing by John B. Jervis, chf. engineer, between 1837 and 1842

Another way I help update our records is by serving on the team that moderates comments made about images from the collections that we display on the photosharing site Flickr. Those comments sometimes provide new information that can improve descriptions of the images – I make sure Prints & Photographs Division catalogers get that kind of information so they can modify the online catalog records.

I update a fair amount of WWI poster catalog records that have incomplete information, and I also fix tons of records where monkeys are misidentified as apes and vice versa!

Speaking of posters, the below is one of my favorites. It’s a WPA poster for a marionette performance of Karel Čapek’s “R.U.R.” First off this is just a well-made poster. A great, bold design and good use of the three colors they printed in. I also like it because it’s a performance of R.U.R., the Czech play that introduced the term “robot,” and could apparently be performed with marionettes.

<em>Federal Theatre - Marionette Theatre presents "RUR" Remo Bufano director.</em> Poster by Charles Verschuuren, between 1936 and 1939.
Federal Theatre – Marionette Theatre presents “RUR” Remo Bufano director. Poster by Charles Verschuuren, between 1936 and 1939.

Melissa: Reference staff also provide tours, orientations and displays for researchers and other audiences – have any stood out recently?

Jon: In addition to providing monthly reading room orientations for researchers interested in learning about the collections, reference staff also participate in providing displays for different events and groups of people. For example, I participated in providing a special display of collection material for a group of Gold Star mothers who visited the Library, and spoke with them about their families and the collections.

I also curated a display and gave a talk about images related to automobile history for an organization specializing in historic vehicles. There was another event commemorating the moon landing that I helped provide a display for. Our work can lead us to learn about subjects that we might not otherwise have an opportunity to explore.

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