The following is an interview with Barbara Orbach Natanson, former Head of the Prints & Photographs Reading Room.
Melissa: Can you tell us about your background, and what roles you played at the Library of Congress before you retired this past December?
Barbara: I first came to the Library of Congress in 1980 to do an internship in the Archive of Folk Song and got the opportunity to continue with some fieldwork in Colorado for the American Folklife Center. Both provided good grounding for completing Master’s degrees in Folklore and in Library Science at UCLA. Upon graduation, I was lucky to land a spot in the Library’s intern program that, at the time, brought together library school graduates with more seasoned LC staff for several months’ worth of discussions and rotations learning about all of the functions of the Library. I was equally lucky that P&P hired me as a cataloger at the conclusion of the program. Wanting to inform my cataloging with a better understanding of how researchers look for images, I became a researcher myself while taking classes at the University of Maryland, deepening my understanding of the collections and acquiring a Ph.D. in American Studies along the way.
I’m grateful that, in 37 years in P&P, I got an opportunity to experience many aspects of the division’s work successively as a cataloger, a reference librarian, a specialist in reference automation, and then as the head of the reference section. In that latter role and while simultaneously acting as head of the curatorial section, I got to learn from and alongside a team of capable and creative colleagues while supporting reference services. There’s nothing more satisfying when answering researchers’ questions than heading down an informational byway that expands knowledge of the collections or the experiences they document. I relished our shared commitment to acquainting members of the public with P&P’s vast wealth of images both by serving collections in the reading room and through an ever-expanding array of outreach activities.
Melissa: What significant changes in P&P have you observed during your career?
Barbara: I arrived in the division just as technology and staff members’ spirit of innovation was transforming image access. When I started, we were actively filing cards into the card catalogs and were wrangling dedicated word processing machines to print out catalog cards on 3×5 inch card stock. Not long after I arrived, rumor of computers that could fit onto the top of a desk started to come true, and – even better for those of us working with pictures – a computer that could search descriptions and bring up the associated image in our One Box computer/videodisc system.
When I moved from cataloging to reference, still limited in how readily we could show off-site researchers what P&P has in its collections, my reference colleagues and I used to joke that we should offer a show on one of the television shopping networks where we could take requests for pictures and hold them up (“Do you like this Currier & Ives print?”). Now researchers everywhere benefit from wonderful digital scans and online searching of descriptions, and we can discuss the collections with individuals and groups virtually. I suspect the expansion in the ways we are able to communicate about images to people near and far has added to the general growth in visual awareness and communication in our image-filled culture.
One thing that never changed in all my years at the Library, however, is how much I (and, by extension, Library users) benefitted from the knowledge of colleagues all over the organization, whether in optimizing online searching and image access, untangling image rights, connecting collections served in different reading rooms, and many other types of support that makes the daily work of the Library possible.
Melissa: What are some collections that are near and dear to you that you’ve worked with over the years?
Barbara: While some may liken choosing among P&P’s thousands of collections to the impossible task of choosing a favorite child, I’d say it’s a little more like picking favorites among genres of music. I like so many collections for the different insights they offer. But among the standouts:
Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information/Office of Emergency Management Collection
I love this collection for the glimpses it gives us of everyday life in America during the 1930s and 1940s. While hardly all candid photographs, they show us how people dressed, ate, played, worked, and worshipped as well as what the interiors of their homes and workplaces looked like. Exploring the context for some of the particular picture stories the photographers made in their work for the government led me to some of my most complex and fascinating research projects. And I can’t leave out the fact that the photographs were what brought one particular researcher to P&P for some extended dissertation research examining Black representation in the collection. Meeting for the first time at the file cabinets that hold the photographs, we married a few years later.George Grantham Bain Collection
I love exploring the Bain News Service photographs (known when we share them on Flickr as “News of the 1910s”) for a sense of who and what the news presented to viewers of an earlier era. We also have the benefit of hindsight, and in sharing the photos in Flickr, I’ve been introduced to fascinating individuals I might never have otherwise met. Sometimes the backstories commenters have contributed draw me in by the strange, often sad twists of fate so many of our forebears experienced.
And I never cease to thrill at the extreme entertainments of decades past!
National Child Labor Committee Photographs
Though often hard to look at, particularly as a parent, I so appreciate this collection for the visual literacy lessons it offers. Photographs taken with a focused purpose to expose the threats posed by child labor, the often extensive captions are among the most detailed I have seen, including names, ages, addresses, pay rates and hours. The captions have offered good material for recent researchers to discover inaccuracies in what Lewis Hine or his witnesses recorded, but also to trigger explorations into the lives the children lived. And while grim working and living conditions may predominate, I relish the instances where children’s playfulness comes through as well.
Popular Graphic Arts
I love the nineteenth-century prints for the ways in which they convey values and ideals presented to the public in that era. To the extent that the prints were used sometimes as advertising and sometimes as a teaching tool, they reflect what publishers and manufacturers marketed as desirable in a changing culture.
Japanese Fine Prints
For pure aesthetic pleasure, I often turn to this collection — it’s the source of many of my electronic greeting cards. The prints are masterful in conveying mood and in providing arresting details.
Melissa: We are so grateful that you offered to volunteer and help us meet some of our goals this year. Can you describe some of the projects you are working on?
Barbara: My main focus is in converting some of P&P’s web-based collection guides to the new research guides platform. It’s a particular treat to get to spend time revisiting the collections, getting to know them more thoroughly, and making connections among them. As you can tell, good fortune graced my entire career at the Library, and I’m indeed lucky to get to continue to collaborate with my wonderful former colleagues and to enjoy and share the collections, even in retirement.
- Explore P&P’s research guides – among the most recently converted are Kern County, California: Photographic Views by Carleton Watkins in the Library of Congress and C. M. Bell Studio Collection of Photographs at the Library of Congress. You might also take a look at a comprehensive listing that includes guides yet to be converted and collection summaries presented in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
- Can you pick a favorite P&P collection? Here are links to the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for collections named above, in case you’d like to delve into them:
- Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information/Office of Emergency Management black-and-white photographs. Color photographs are also available! For information about the photographs of Jewel Mazique, see: Barbara Orbach and Nicholas Natanson, “The Mirror Image: Black Washington in World War II-Era Federal Photography,” Washington History, 4, No. 1 (1992): 4-25, available online via JSTOR.
- Bain Collection. To see comments and backstories contributed by Flickr members, view Bain photographs posted to the “News in the 1910s” album in that photosharing service.
- National Child Labor Committee photographs. For examples of recent research on the people in the photos, see these two blog posts: “Remembering Researcher Joe Manning, Who Helped Us Remember So Many Others” and “The Faces of Child Labor.”
- Popular Graphic Arts
- Japanese Fine Prints, pre-1915.
- Are you looking to get more hands-on experience with the Library of Congress collections? The Library continues to offer a variety of internship opportunities as well as ways to get involved remotely through crowdsourcing projects.