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Iron & Glass

Spotlight on the Picture File Collections at Pratt Institute and the New York Public Library

by Johanna Bauman on 2021-10-18T12:01:00-04:00 in Special Collections, Library Collections, Images, Art Librarianship | Comments

Written by Sal Tuszynski, Access Services Clerk.

In early August of this year (2021) the New York Public Library announced plans to archive its 107 year old Picture Collection, housed in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. An abundant resource for artists, academics, and casual browsers alike, patrons feared that, as an archived and therefore request-only resource, the regular use of the collection would dwindle and the history of the collection would be forgotten. However, the decision to archive the collection was reversed on September 17th when the NYPL announced that the collection will remain circulating and browsable.

NYPL patrons browse the picture collection.    NYPL patrons browse the picture collection.

NYPL patrons browse the picture collection. Both images: Gus Powell for The New York Times

The Pratt Institute Libraries also has a Picture File Collection located on the Lower Level of the Brooklyn campus library. Both the Pratt and the NYPL picture collections arose in the early twentieth century out of growing demand for images that could be browsed and circulated, due largely to innovations in printing and photography that allowed for more accessible and reproducible images. This created a cultural shift towards the increasing use of pictures as tools for creative expression, entertainment, and education. Media creatives and entertainment fans alike flocked to the NYPL’s burgeoning picture collection, while art and architecture students and professors sought out Pratt’s picture collection to satisfy their art and design research needs.

Patrons in the Art Reference Room in 1896

Patrons in the Art Reference Room on the third floor of the library utilizing the picture collections in 1896 (Pratt Institute Archives Photograph Collection)

As we are experiencing today with digital technology, the influx of print media in the early twentieth century revolutionized norms in a variety of institutions. The NYPL picture collection librarians saw the new collection as an opportunity to rewrite established library practices, for example, opting “to diverge from the traditional bibliographical orientation of descriptive cataloging, emphasizing instead the maximum number of access points to a picture's subject content.” (Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library Vol 4. No. 1 (Fall 1995): 115-138) Advocates for the collection such as Romana Javitz, the collection’s superintendent from 1929 to 1968, also identified the central role that the collection plays in pushing back against the supremacy of the written word by highlighting the role of pictures in (re)producing knowledge. In an effort to maximize accessibility, Javitz created a system where immigrant visitors could draw out a picture of the image they were looking for on a call slip. In addition to supporting non-english speakers, this system allowed librarians to keep in touch with the current terminology used and sometimes subject headings were renamed based on how patrons articulated their requests. Furthermore, Javitz herself purchased items for the purpose of cutting out plates and illustrations to supplement inadequately represented subject areas, and “while this deconstruction of material often horrified other librarians, Javitz reveled in the practice. To her thinking, dismembering a book not only allowed for redistribution of its pieces toward other, perhaps better, purposes, but also demystified the book as an object.” (see citation above) The NYPL picture file collection, therefore, acted as a container for a myriad of innovative library practices that reimagined categorization and circulation, and saw items primarily for their interactive potential, not their original format.

The Pratt Institute Libraries’ Picture Collection was started in the 1880s and was originally maintained by Laura Palmer, who served as the Head of the Art Reference Department from 1896 until her retirement in 1925. It initially served as a photo collection, where reproductions of art relevant to history and design, such as architecture details and famous sculptures, were carefully mounted, labeled, and categorized.

Three mounted and labeled images of a Joan of Arc

Three mounted and labeled images of a Joan of Arc sculpture from the original Picture Collection. Background image: Architecture: Mr. Hopkins' Class, 1890 (Pratt Institute Archives Photograph Collection). Collage by Sal Tuszynski.

The collection allowed students to view the images for classes and related research projects. Similar to the NYPL collection, it created an accessible way to conduct research without requiring expensive traveling or purchasing of images. Furthermore, the collection was openly browsable and circulating, again encouraging usage of the materials over preserving the items. The resource provided the equivalent of Google Images or Artstor for the time period and stands as an example of the central role that images have played in academic pursuits for decades. Laura Palmer comments on the importance of the picture collection to students’ research: 

A visitor to the Art Reference Room at the close of a busy day could have no doubt as to the usefulness of the photograph library. Sometimes it seems as if a volcanic upheaval had taken place beneath the wide shelves, burying them in pictures of almost everything in the realm of art-creation. One who has not seen the process of mounting, labelling and cataloguing these photographs, can have no idea of the time, study, and labor involved; but although long, like art, it is well repaid by the success of the undertaking. (Pratt Institute Monthly Vol. 6, No. 3 (December 1897): 87-88)

At some point in the mid twentieth century (the specific year is a piece of the picture file’s history that has been lost to time), librarians at Pratt started enhancing the existing artist files with clippings from donated magazines and discarded periodicals. The practice of mounting photographs continued but over time the clippings took over the majority of the collection. The Picture File Collection once occupied an entire room on the third floor of the Brooklyn library, with file cabinets extending along all of the walls and tables for viewing the files along with a scanner in the center of the room. 

Picture File Room Third Floor 2006

The Picture File collection in 2006 located on the third floor in a space currently used by Library Faculty

The clipping file has not been added to since the early 1990s, but around 2014 graduate assistants working with the Head of Digital and Special Collections were tasked with  reorganizing and relabeling the collection in preparation for the move to its current location on the Lower Level of the library. Graduate assistants worked for over a year and a half reorganizing the collection, identifying problematic language and categorization, redistributing items within outdated subject headings into more appropriate locations and reducing the size of the collection so that it would fit the file cabinets in the space. Much of the discarded material was donated to public schools to be used as art materials in classrooms, as well as to students at Pratt to use for their own projects. 

Today, the Pratt Libraries’ Picture File Collection consists of tens of thousands of analog images from magazine and newspaper clippings, photographs, and a variety of other picture resources in over 1,200 file folders organized by subject. Subject titles range from “facial expressions” to “men fighting”. In addition to the clippings organized by subject, there is one section of the file cabinet that holds fashion designer clippings, with items organized by creator.

Picture File Images Showing Facial Expressions    Picture File Facial Expressions Folder

Isacc Mizrahi Sportswear Images.   Isaac Mizrahi Sportswear Folder

Images from the “Facial Expressions #1” subject folder and F. Mizrahi, Issac -- Sportswear folder from the fashion designer section. Clippings selected and organized by Sal Tusynski

While Pratt librarians no longer add to the Libraries’ collection, the NYPL collection grows regularly: the four full-time librarians for the collection add about 400 pictures every month, all clipped from recently acquired books and periodicals. Historically, prominent creatives such as Andy Warhol and Wynn Thomas made regular trips to the NYPL collection, using the images as inspiration for projects and incorporated elements into their own work.  More recently, creators of shows like Mad Men, for example, have used the picture files to create historically accurate sets and costumes. Additionally, the artist Taryn Simon curated an exhibition based on creatively organizing images from the collection and then photographing them; her years long project  “The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection,” was on view at the Gagosian this summer and will be displayed in the NYPL Picture Collection starting in fall of 2021 through May 15, 2022. 

In addition to utilizing pictures for a range of art and entertainment projects, curators and educators look to the NYPL collection as a teaching tool. Pratt’s own photography professor Peter Kayafas regularly brings his students to look at the collection. Pratt professors and students also make regular use of Pratt’s Picture File Collection. Communications Design professors and Fashion professors utilize the collection as a way to get students out of the online bubble. For example, in Fall 2021 professor Nick Weltyk is assigning students in his “Image as Communication” course to develop  a project using images from the collection. While copyright prevents the library from digitizing the Picture File collection, the analog experience of physically dealing with the materials allows users to interact with content outside of algorithmic suggestion mechanisms.  Patrons are also encouraged to take pictures with their phones or scan the items when they leaf through the folders, so they are able to have a digital version of the information. Additionally, an interesting aspect of some of the clippings are the advertisements and articles on the back of the files. These act as a sort of portal into a random point of time, and the lack of context can make the pictures even more intriguing and mysterious.

Occupation Clipping File showing a Meteorologist    Back of a picture file clipping showing a 59 Chevy

An image under the subject heading “Occupation” features a meteorologist while the back of the clipping has an advertisement for a ‘59 Chevrolet

While text-based collections in libraries are immensely important for all types of research and exploration, it is evident that image collections play a large role in shaping our culture’s art, entertainment, and education. These collections, therefore, cleave an opening into the conventional Western view of the written word as the highest form of knowledge. Luckily, the NYPL community understands the unique history of NYPL picture collection and identifies the picture collection as a positive manifestation of critical library theory and accessible library practices: over 2,400 people signed a petition to keep the collection open to all on the website change.org. If you haven’t yet visited Pratt Libraries' Picture File Collection, this is your invitation to do so! The collection is open for browsing any time the library is open. For more information, you can reach out to Johanna Bauman, the Head of Digital and Special Collections at speccoll.library@pratt.edu, or visit the Picture File Collection Guide.


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