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New York Public Library’s Picture Collection - New York, New York

PDC member T.V. Alexander visits the NYPL's Picture Collection

“Many facts which require hours to be tracked down in texts can be swiftly and simply discovered by consultation with pictures.” – Romana Javitz, former head of the Picture Collection.

Imagine, if you will, a time before Google Images. That’s the world I lived in the first time I visited the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, desperate to find some new visual research for a college project. At the time, around 2005, the collection was housed in the Mid-Manhattan location, across from the more iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It felt like a secret - a room full of shelves stuffed with files of just pictures. Not binders, not books, just loose pictures in folders you can pick up and move around and even check out and take home. I took photos of what I needed with my clunky digital camera, making sure to frame in the hand penciled archive numbers on each image in case I needed to go find them again.

The category headings on the folders seemed baffling at first. For example, there is no folder for “Sports” but there are multiple folders for “Ball Games”. It begs the question, who came up with this system and when?

The answer is the librarians of the NYPL over a hundred years ago, responding to an overwhelming demand from the burgeoning graphic arts industry. Workers creating graphic illustration for theater, publishing and many other industries needed references and the library began amassing postcards, tear sheets, clippings and the like, creating an accessible collection (as opposed to the already existing Print Collection, whose fine art holdings do not circulate). After amassing over 17,000 images, the Picture Collection opened for circulation in 1915.

In 1929, after much growth and change, the collection came under the leadership of Romana Javitz, who set a course towards modernization. After studying famous pictorial collections of Europe, Javitz returned to New York and expanded what the collection took in to preserve images of American folk art and African American art and craft.

In 1935, with the help of a group of unemployed illustrators and the WPA, Javitz devised a program to preserve American decorative arts through images. Javitz Argued that by ignoring the role of pictures in producing knowledge, libraries had created a vacuum that would be filled by commercial enterprise, an argument that has proved prescient.

Throughout her tenure she continued reassessing the index of subject headings, always with the aim of making the collection as accessible as possible.

Nowadays, the collection is housed in Room 119 at the iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, itself is a treasure of a space. Gorgeous Beaux-Arts details everywhere, enthralling views of West 42nd Street, the rich smell of old paper - I have often found myself creatively reinvigorated just by being there, even if my search yielded nothing helpful.

But it rarely doesn’t yield something. Part of the beauty, to me, is that even when I don’t find what I was looking for I always leave with something to file away for another project. This is due in part to the nature of the pictures as objects. Sometimes they are neatly mounted on matte board but frequently the images are tears from old books, magazines, catalogs - which means there can be other text or images on the reverse. Occasionally this ignites a new idea. The organic nature of chasing concepts through physical images is really fun.

Recently, I was looking for pictures of malls (first hurdle, they are actually all under “Shopping Centers”) and turned one picture over to discover it was a page from a retail development industry publication I had never heard of. Another door to open on my research journey! Would I have found that doing text based research? Probably not.

The Picture Collection is also home to the library’s collection of over 25,000 postcards, an amazing source of illustrative inspiration but also helpful for historic research. For designers not able to visit New York, a majority of the collection is also available online. But for those who can visit, the collection offers about 20 seats to work at, some tables and some window counters. I prefer using a scanning app to gather my images but it’s nice to have the option to use their color and black and white copiers. It’s a great room to eavesdrop in, I love overhearing what other people are working on. To top off your visit, consider a stroll in Bryant Park, the perfect cap to an afternoon spent among the pictures.


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