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View of classromm with view of Black school children visible in foreground and teacher and chalkboard visible in background.
First grade in Flint River Farms school, Georgia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, May 1939.

Behind the Scenes: Expanding Access with Subject Terms

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The following is an interview with Avnee Sharma and Alicia Perkovich, who both served as Archives, History and Heritage Advanced interns in the Prints & Photographs Division last fall.

Two young women looking at camera while looking through file cabinets full of photographs.
Alicia Perkovich (left) and Avnee Sharma viewing photos from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. Photo by Prints & Photographs Division staff, 2023.

Melissa: Can each of you tell us about your background and how you came to work at the Library of Congress as Archives, History and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) interns in the Prints & Photographs Division?

Avnee: I graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County this past May with a major in cultural anthropology and a minor in public humanities. As a recent grad, I saw the opportunity for the AHHA internship at the Library of Congress, and I really liked the idea of highlighting underrepresented stories. I live in Prince George’s County, Maryland and had some experience working with metadata for postcards in the Laurel Historical Society’s collection – I made sure they were documented in their online system with the specific metadata. This internship was an additional opportunity to see if I like this kind of detail-oriented work. I’m also really interested in working with different people who haven’t had an opportunity to have their stories be told in their own way.

Alicia: I graduated this spring as well, from the University of Maryland’s College Park campus. I have a dual degree in art history and history. I had done internships at different galleries and research centers and was hoping to work with historical art collections and learn about how curatorial and research processes work in a larger institution. I was attracted to the hands-on experience and professional development elements, and the opportunity to learn more about the Library of Congress in general. It was great to be able to talk with people in different positions, whether in technical services or in the curatorial section, and see how they work together. The interpretive aspects of curatorial work are really appealing to me.

Melissa: Could you tell us about the work you did for your internship in P&P?

Alicia: We both worked on the same project, where we were subject indexing photographs from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection, which documents life in the United States between 1935 and 1944. The collection is about 175,000 photographs, which are available in digitized form in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. However, the metadata and language that came in with the historical collection, especially for underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, was sometimes offensive or there was sparse information for the photographs. That can make them difficult to find when searching the online catalog by keyword.

Avnee and I were finding that there were photographs around a particular theme, for example around labor organizing or education, and they might have depicted diverse communities, but there was no language to make them easily discoverable for researchers using related terms in a search of the catalog. So we were adding subject headings to photos to make the photos easier to find. In total, we updated the catalog records for almost 1,000 photos. And we added about 144 unique terms to the descriptions for those photos. That count includes 20 new terms we proposed to be added to the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials (TGM).

This photograph of two young workers on strike was the genesis for my focus on labor. They are two of many workers striking at King Farm in Pennsylvania for higher wages. On the left is a young Black man with the sign “We the Youth of To-day Speak” and a young white woman with a sign that says, “Strike.”

Young Black man and young White women stand next to each other outdoors holding signs related to agricultural strike.
Members of the picket line at the King Farm strike. Morrisville, Pennsylvania. Photo by John Vachon, Aug. 1938.

It was truly inspiring to see the diversity of workers uniting in solidarity, and to see the empowered youth involved in labor activity of the 1930s. Photographs such as these are so important for representing the diversity of American life, especially when our historical retellings can exclude the economic agency of non-white and non-male individuals.

In terms of choosing the photos we added terms to, our supervisors gave us a lot of freedom to look at materials that interested us. It was also really helpful to be able to look at the FSA photo prints in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room, and to browse that physical collection rather than just doing keyword searches in the online catalog.

Avnee: That summary is really great.

While Alicia’s work focused more on images related to labor, I worked more with photos related to education. At the beginning there was a little bit of a learning curve for finding images on a particular topic. For example, I would look up “rural schools” hoping to see people in an educational setting, but saw that I was finding more images that related to school buildings than the people who used them. I found that adding terms like “children” or “migrant” or “farmer” to an educational term could help me land on more images.

In this process, I happened upon a whole collection of photos from Flint River Farms and was able to learn a lot about this community just by adjusting my keyword searches. Hopefully through adding more index terms related to education more researchers are able to discover communities like this and more!

View of classromm with view of Black school children visible in foreground and teacher and chalkboard visible in background.
First grade in Flint River Farms school, Georgia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, May 1939.

The photo below, captioned “American, Indian and R.A.F. guards,” also really stuck with me. I didn’t expect to see any photos of an Indian person of South Asian descent in this collection and was pleasantly surprised. This photo was taken in India and I thought about how the war and conflict during this period allowed these men to meet and work together. I hoped that by including the Indian soldier’s national and racial identity in the catalog record subject headings, we could better represent his background. Although the vast majority of images in the collection were made for the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information, those agencies also acquired a small selection of images from other sources, including the U.S. Army Signal Corps in this case:

Three service men stand at attention, one American, one Indian, and one British.
American, Indian and Royal Air Force guards somewhere in India. Photo from U.S. Army Signal Corps, circa 1942.

As we saw more images in a particular category, and analyzed what was in them, we started to see where it would be helpful to add new terms, both those that were already available in the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, and those we suggested adding to TGM, such as “housing discrimination” or “factory workers.”

Melissa: Are there any additional aspects of your work you would like to discuss?

Avnee: We also created a document that serves as kind of a living annotated bibliography that listed references to resources related to inclusive description and curatorial work at cultural heritage institutions, including libraries, archives, and museums, and we were looking all around the world.

For example, Alicia found an article related to how a museum in Australia works with local Indigenous communities in relation to their curatorial and interpretive work. And I found an article about a museum in Illinois that was using the lens of Black feminism to think about how to write their exhibit text. I read another resource that detailed a massive meeting of catalogers from many different regions and institutions who were working together and having an open dialogue about how they were rethinking their descriptive practices. There is clearly an endless amount of research and work to be done in this area.

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  1. A terrific project with excellent results that open this collection even more to researchers. Avnee and Alicia have provided a template for similar work.

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