If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Library of Congress’s
Print and Photograph Division is worth 14 x 109 of them.
There are certain inventions that explode on the scene. The telephone, the automobile, the airplane and the Internet all took off from critical breakthrough into commercially viable products in just a few short years.
Add photography to that list of overnight sensations. The ability to “fix a shadow” as the early pioneers of photography called their goal, first became practical in the 1840s. But by the time of the U.S. Civil War, anyone who was anyone was having his portrait taken at Mathew Brady’s studio in New York or Washington; soon, the technology became so cheap and the demand to have pictures made was so great that ordinary people clamored to have themselves snapped for posterity. (Nothing back then snapped in the way we mean it today. Early cameras and the chemistry needed to produce an image were notoriously slow. cf. Cellphone photography.)
The result was a society that began to photograph and record everything. There are photos galore of the rich, the famous, the criminal and the historical. There are landscapes and cityscapes and dogs and cats and … look … If you can point at a camera at it or make a print of it, there’s probably a picture of it.
Nowhere can you take a deeper dive into the fascinating and rich pictorial record of the United States than at the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. It’s an immense collection. Better yet, about 1,000,000 of its 14 million images are digitized and many of its prints are available for low-cost purchase in digital format for printing at home. This is a treasure vault of images for historians, artists, designers and the merely curious. Covering more than 18o years of materials, this is single largest archives of photos and prints in the world. Don’t miss it.
Why so glum? In case you’re wondering why it was everyone looked so somber in those old pictures, it’s not because they couldn’t simple take selfies and post them up to some 1863 version of Instagram. Nor is it because post-mortem photography was a thing in the Victorian era.
Smiling in photos actually has a complicated history. Common wisdom was that the serious expressions were a by-product of the lengthy exposures required to get an image back then (30 seconds to 2 or 3 minutes, depending on the light). Holding a smile that long is near impossible. Try to find a non-blurry child or horse in old photos. They can’t ever stand still long enough.
Makes sense, but that’s only part of the story. Smiling in a painted portrait usually didn’t come across as “happy” back then. Instead, smiles and grins in pictures came across as drunk, crazy or evil. There is still has no single satisfactory answer of why we still say “cheese” and smile for pictures, but it’s probably easier to figure out how the smile became standard than understand the whys and wherefores of duck face.
BONUS ARCHIVE: The Duchenne Medical Photography Archives and Museum
Sometime around 1875, French doctor G.-B. Duchenne used electrical stimulus on the facial muscles to simulate different emotional states and photographed the results. This subject is smiling, but he doesn’t appear particularly happy, know what I’m sayin’?
Collection and Subject Area Guides and Finding Aids
“If your vote didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to take it away from you.” — Samuel L. Jackson
There is an old saying in politics, usually mis-attributed to Joseph Stalin: “It’s not the vote who counts, but who counts the votes.” Despite the baseless claims of Donald Trump’s post-election rampage of lies and misinformation regarding election results, a cynical project of bad faith that culminated in a bloody riot at the Capitol on January 6, American elections are actually secure and accurately reflected voter preferences. Nevertheless, the made-up outrage over “election fraud” is not only is not going away, GOP lawmakers are still pressing home the fiction that American elections cannot be trusted. The industrious researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York are keeping tabs on voting restriction efforts afoot in a majority of states. The results are not pretty.
Voter suppression, of course, is nothing new and has an old and ugly history in the United States, dating to Reconstruction and the associated racial terror immediately after the Civil War aimed at maintaining white supremacy at the ballot box. The effort to deny full voting rights is still with us and is in full flower a statehouses across the nation.
It is one of the oddities of American politics that elections, even for federal offices like the Presidency, are not governed by federal law but by a hodgepodge of 50 state laws, subject to the whims of state lawmakers. That’s why it is so important to pass H.R. 1, a federal bill now in Congress will help protect voters throughout the U.S. and help prevent partisans from playing games with the single most important part of a democratic republic: the right of the people to have their vote count and to be free of interference in the process of casting that choice.
Write, call, text or e-mail your representative in Congress to voice your support of H.R. 1., the “For the People Act of 2021.” When it comes to voting and suffrage that came at the expense of people’s lives, don’t let your franchise be stolen from you. Use it or lose it.
“Information wants to be free.” – Stewart Brand (1984)
Why not just scan everything in the archive? Look what Google did for more than 40 million books forlornly sitting on library shelves throughout the world, unloved, unknown and worst of all, unread. Google started scanning them.
After enlisting the cooperation of librarians and trundling some high-octane scanning tools into the stacks, Google made all those otherwise orphaned books accessible. They OCR’d everything from rare titles to historical materials to … well, whatever it is that is represented by those 40 million books. Once scanned, the contents of these works can now be surfaced almost effortlessly at the end of a specialized Google search. It is a brand of magic that would make Merlin throw out his wand and pointy hat and quit sorcery to enroll in a computer science class.
The benefits of scanning text collections, as we know now from G-Books, are very clear. What’s stopping archivists? Why don’t archivists roll in the scanners, digitize the fonds, upload the results to their Web site and Presto! Change-o! Instant full-text search, easier finding without all that record profiling and best of all, protection of rare, fragile or popular materials from the abuses of mishandling.
Would that it were that easy.
Start with the very simple fact that no archive in the world has a fraction of the money that Google does. Scanning costs money. It’s laborious. It’s expensive to do on a large scale; even such archival behemoths as the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress haven’t burrowed very deeply into their own collections and those guys are working with jillionaire budgets.
When it comes to the “scan/no scan” question, see what the archivists at the Peel Archives and Museum (serving the region of Peel in and around Brompton, Ontario) have to say on the subject in this interesting post. It is not a simple issue.
In the same vein, this video covers much of the same turf. It comes courtesy of the Australian Mutuals History. In short, scan where you can or scan where you must, but understand that finding aids and archivists are still the best way for archives to help their patrons get their (gloved and protected) hands on an archival record.
Resources available at sports halls of fame can make research a slam dunk.
If there is one aspect of American life that cries out for archival preservation, it’s the memory of our sports leagues and competitions. Name your favorite sport and there is more than likely (1) a Hall of Fame for the sport, (2) an associated reference library associated with that hall staffed by smart researchers who can field even arcane questions and (3) usually an archive.
The Giamatti Research Center at the Baseball Hall of Fame, named the former MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti, is one of the great ones. Their research library and archives have old box scores, multimedia records of broadcasts, line-ups, bios of players and just about anything else to make the heart of a diehard [Insert your team here] fan go thumpetty-thump.
The researchers are awesome. Got an unanswerable question about a 1936 Yankees game? Forget about going to the videotape. Go to these researchers. They’ve got all the play-by-play you will ever need.
- Giamatti Research Center
- Library Catalog (Select “Manuscript Archives Collections” to narrow your search for archival holdings under Collection Search.
OTHER SPORTS HALLs OF FAME
Alas, no searchable archive or research library, though the contacts do list an archivist. The University of Kansas maintains a centralized archive of materials concerning basketball’s inventor James Naismith. Good luck finding a collection of original Air Jordans.
Bowling has a hall of fame. I have been to it. I am proud of it.
Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame
International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame
There is no library or searchable archive that I could find, but the international museum does have a feature titled “Explore the Vault” – you might want to tune in to the oxymoronic “Bowling Fashion” for tips on how to stay stylin’ on the lanes.
Soccer (“Football” to non-Americans)
FIFA World Football Museum
Information Research Center
Not everyone from the heyday of rock and roll was so burned out that they forgot to keep stuff. The original rockers and rappers, stars and wannabes alike, left a considerable amount of interesting materials behind. These are records donated by obsessed fans and collectors, collections of actual musicians like Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist sidekick, Silvio from “The Sopranos” and host of Little Steven’s Underground Garage satellite radio show) and assorted business records, concert ephemera and the other unique materials, like stuff from the Ramones’ manager Danny Fields. (Note: Don’t ever describe archival records as “stuff”).
Rock and roll will never die, but parts of it will be properly mummified for eternity on the shores of Lake Erie.
- Of interest to archivists: See “Preservation: 88 Lines on 44 Techniques.” (PDF will save locally; N.B. “Resources” links on last page.)
- Library and Archives
- Archives catalog
- Scope of the archives: “Archival Collections“
- Website: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Seek and ye shall find. But even St. Matthew needed a place to start …
To locate who minds the archival goods and where they keep them — be those goods the collected letters of an author say, or audio recordings made by an otherwise obscure sound engineer or the sketches and models amassed by an architect over a professional lifetime — you are going to need some industrial strength finding aids.
Here are four of them that I relied on when I was a working librarian that you may find helpful – but of course, Prof. Gibbons is the go-to authority when it comes to this. In all instances, search the holdings as you would any library catalog – but don’t rely on the EZ search function: go straight to the advanced search for maximum control over search syntax and more concise results.
This well-designed database of archival holdings is a service of OCLC, the mother of all library catalogs, WorldCat (see below).
Where might you find the collected papers and related collections for rapper Tupac Shakur? Historical events like the great power blackout of 1965? The Lollapalooza Festival? What about a collection of 1990s-era video games and consoles from the founder of SEGA? Archives are not just a mess of letters stuffed into boxes and then donated by the family of a two-term Congressman just to get the crap out of the attic.
Library of Congress (Finding Aids: Browse Collections)
Without waxing poetic about all the services to researchers that the world’s largest library provides, let’s just say the LoC should be your new BFF in research. That’s especially true when it comes to their remarkable collection of archives. The collection is easy to browse and even if you are not looking up something specific, it’s fun to rifle through the alphabet and see what they’ve got.
Look up, in the sky, it’s a bird! It’s a plane. It’s a … plane. Airplanes as we all know got into the sky one December morning in 1903 in Kitty Hawk, NC thanks to some single-minded bike mechanics named Orville and Wilbur. And while boys from Dayton get all the memorials and awards and historical credit for giving us modern citizens two-hour ground holds at LaGuardia, they didn’t do it alone. They corresponded along the way with a fellow inventor with an interest in flying and gliders named Octave Chanute. Aviation buffs and historians of pioneering inventions in aerospace can see what Mr. Chanute had to say about what the Wright Bros. were working on; see the archival record of his papers deposited at the LoC. (Look under “O” for Octave.) No word about his frequent flyer status.
New York Public Library
You do have a NYPL library card, right? If not, for shame! What kind of a student/ New Yorker / archivist / thinker are you? Get in gear and apply for one right this instant!
The holdings are vast, the catalogs are immense and all you need is this magical incantation to locating archival materials galore: type archival mix in the advanced search field for format and go nuts.
The library catalog of library catalogs, WorldCat is the handiwork of participating libraries the world over who agree to make their holdings searchable along with those of other institutions. The way to cut to the chase is to use the selector archival material in the Advanced Search field for format. This cat swings, man.
Look around you, New Yorkers. What do you see, in the most literal way? Bricks, of course! We live in a city made out of bricks. These humble little rectangles of baked earth – red, yellow, or glazed into unnatural colors – constitute the visual signature of New York. Until the grand old 19th and 20th century buildings are replaced by the glass and aluminum cereal boxes poking straight up, they remain the single most dominant building cladding material and gives the city the warm earth-tone glow of the old industrial city it once was.
But no one thinks too much about the poor, humble brick except maybe architects, bricklayers, designers and the people who actually create them. For the curious among us, who need to know the whats and wherefores of even common objects, brick might be a candidate for a morning’s research – where do they come from? How are they made? Why is New York so full of brick and not pine or plastic or Vermont granite?
If you are so inclined to add another brick to your wall of learning, the next stop would be find some expertise on the subject. And that is what brings us to the remarkable 200-year old General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Library at 20 West 44th Street in Manhattan. This subscription library, which is open to the public for a small fee, offers a 100,000+ volume collection of urban construction information that is a builders’ dream. You want to know about bricks? Here’s a sample of what their catalog offers on the subject.
The headquarters is stunning inside, with a soaring skylight and enough turn-of-the-century oak details that make you think CorneliusVanderbilt himself is about to drop off his overdue books on railroad construction and engineering. And a little odd bit of interest: the library houses a collection of more than 400 rare and unusual locks. The society hosts a lecture series, curtailed now because of the Covid, but check back in when life returns to whatever will be the closest to normal we can muster to practice your safecracking skills or brush up on the finer points of high-rise plumbing risers.
When I was a lad, February offered two – count ’em – free days off: Lincoln’s Birthday on the 12th and Washington’s Birthday 10 days later. That lovely scheme ended in 1971 to be replaced instead by the smoggy bureaucratic idea of lumping all 46 Chief Executives into one day of national forgetting. Presidents Day stinks and we’d be better off consigning it to a dusty room in the National Archives where even the spiders wouldn’t bother with it.
Why should we even theoretically “celebrate” all the Presidents? Clearly, Abe and George deserve a bit of love, but Richard Nixon? It was on Nixon’s watch that birthed this ghastly “holiday” as part of the mind-numbingly named Uniform Monday Holiday Act. (Oooh, the party is ON!) Even Dick knew there was no chance in hell that his birthday on January 9 was going to be considered even as an Arbor Day-level holiday. So the best he could hope for in the way of future hailing of his chiefness, was sharing attention with the likes of John Tyler, Franklin Pierce and Jimmy Carter. Given that this First Fraternity membership gives equal weight to the general who defeated the Third Reich as well as the mummy-haired phony Pharaoh of Forest Hills, it’s not fair to sully the deserving Presidents by association with the dimmer bulbs. Why should Thomas Jefferson have to share a day with Andrew Johnson? Barack Obama deserves more honor than George W. but this putative holiday lumps them all into one bunch so that we can’t tell them apart. It’s a bullshit holiday.
In the interest of Presidential equity, I say bring back the two February birthday-holidays, add January 30 to the mix – give FDR some credit already – and heave-ho Columbus Day with a long-overdue boot. After all, liking or loathing a President is the principal point of having a half-assed democracy like ours. Things haven’t been the same since all the POTUSes got balled up together into one nothingness of a federal holiday that has cost us a February day off and gave us nothing in compensation but 25% off all sectional sofas.