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Five Questions with Kristi Finefield, Reference Librarian, Prints and Photographs Division

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The following is a guest post from Kristi Finefield of the Library of Congress.

Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.

Kristi Finefield with a Stereoscope in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room
Kristi Finefield with a Stereographic Viewer in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room

I’m a reference librarian in the Prints and Photographs Division (P&P). P&P is the home of over 15 million images, including photographs, architectural drawings, historical and fine prints, documentary drawings, and other works of art on paper. In my work, I connect researchers with these visual materials when they visit the Prints and Photographs Reading Room as well as online through Ask a Librarian and by phone. Some of my other public-facing activities are writing for the Picture This blog as well as moderating the Library of Congress Flickr account as part of a team in P&P.

Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?

For me, one of the greatest joys of working at the Library is that I continually have the opportunity to choose a new favorite item, and I’ll never need to pick the same one twice, thanks to the vastness of the collections. Every day, I see an image I’ve never seen before or view a photo with new eyes because of a researcher’s enthusiasm for their research topic. Even with all the tools at my disposal to locate specific items, my day is still full of serendipity and discovery – and brand new favorites!

Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.

See above! The truth is items in the collections continually spark my curiosity. Some of those intriguing images become the seed for a blog post for Picture This. A few examples where curiosity led to inspiration: The spark was a set of early 19th century constellation guide cards, which I discuss in the context of: Looking into Urania’s Mirror: The Geminid Meteor Shower.  A photograph of an unusually painted ship led me to write: A Dazzling Disguise. And a close look at a U.S. Civil War drawing became: St. Patrick’s Day in the Army

Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student.

I find that teachers are some of the most enthusiastic researchers, as they seem to look at every image with a sense of possibility and immediately imagine how they can use it in the classroom as well as how their students will react. Encounters with K-12 students are not as common for me, so one I had last year stands out. For an event that was open to the public, a colleague and I set up a display of materials from our collections related to bicycling. Three young teenagers came to the table to look over our assortment of photographs, posters and prints. I pointed out the stereoscope to one of them, and when he looked into it and saw a 19th century photograph turn into a 3-D image, he exclaimed about how cool it was, and then encouraged his friends to look at it too. They wanted to put everything we had in the viewer to see if it would become a 3-D image. I explained how it worked, and they each took turns looking over and over again at the stereograph cards we brought. I could tell this was a story they would pass on after they left the event. It’s easy to think that students with access to modern technology won’t be amazed by technology which predates their grandparents, but clearly it can happen!

What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general.

A photograph (or a poster, drawing, painting, etc.) always has more than one story to tell. It may document a moment in time, but it also may offer an opinion on that event through the choices of the photographer. The photographer chooses when and where to snap the shutter. The same photo might tell you something unrelated to its event, such as the state of fashion or hairstyles, or automobile design. It may also be a work of art, a study in lighting and a lesson on composition. Perhaps there’s a store in the background of a photo which belonged to the ancestor of a researcher, or the window of the store shows the cost of clothing or food, for those studying economic conditions. And if the photograph is black-and-white, remind students that history happened in full, living color!

Comments (3)

  1. Great post. Thanks, Kristi, for sharing some of your favorites. As the author of nonfiction books, I see great possibilities in each of these images.

  2. I love that something like Google Cardboard has its roots in 19th Century stereograph cards. The imagination has always been there, just took the technology a while to catch up.

  3. Great post! I love hearing from these amazing guests like Kristi! And I couldn’t agree more with your Kristi — the ability for teachers to see the potential of items is awe inspiring.

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