[Paleopsych] NYT: The Public Library Opens a Web Gallery of Images
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Books > Critic's Notebook: The Public Library Opens a Web Gallery of Images
March 3, 2005
By SARAH BOXER
Let the browser beware. The New York Public Library's collection of
prints, maps, posters, photographs, illuminated manuscripts,
sheet-music covers, dust jackets, menus and cigarette cards is now
online (www.nypl.org/digital/digitalgallery.htm). If you dive in
today without knowing why, you might not surface for a long, long
time. The Public Library's digital gallery is lovely, dark and deep.
Quite eccentric, too.
So far, about 275,000 items are online, and you can browse by subject,
by collection, by name or by keyword. The images first appear in
thumbnail pictures, a dozen to a page. Some include verso views. You
can collect 'em, enlarge 'em, download 'em, print 'em and hang 'em on
your wall at home. All are free, unless, of course, you plan to make
money on them yourself. (Permission is required.)
Despite the Web site's great richness, sleek looks and fast response
to a mouse click, it does feel a bit musty. The digital gallery is
modeled on an old-fashioned card catalog, with all the attendant
creaks. Doing a search is like going into a library and opening file
For instance, you can't get a list of all the photographers or the
printmakers or the artists - only an alphabetical list of every proper
name in the digital library. If you type in "photograph*" (the most
general search term), you will get more than 11,000 items, organized
who knows how. To find out who is in it, you have to go through all of
the thumbnail images. If you limit the search by typing in
"photograph," you get about 2,200 items. If you type in
"photographer," you get only 200.
One difference between this Web site and a card catalog is that
there's no librarian to help you. That can be both maddening and
Say you start your exploration with one of the two images that open
the library's Digital Gallery, a detail from a color woodcut from
Kitagawa Utamaro's ukiyo-e prints (pictures of the floating world)
depicting the lives of ordinary Japanese women and courtesans. There
are 35 images from that series, and you can magnify each one enough to
see how the women are doing with their lipstick and mirrors.
What other Japanese images are there? Use the search term "Japanese"
and you will find 210 assorted items, including a 19th-century
photograph of two Japanese girls sleeping, a page showing various
kinds of Japanese lacquers, a print showing Japanese alphabets, sheet
music for an 1893 song titled "The Jap," a 1727 map of Japan, a menu
for a dinner that was held aboard the Kobe in 1900, a picture of a
fish called the Japanese grunt, and a cigarette card showing a
Want to know what cigarette cards are? Look and you'll learn that in
the late 19th and early 20th century, these small picture cards were
tucked into cigarette packets as a promotional device, the cigarette
equivalent of bubblegum cards. Exactly 21,206 of them are online now.
What? That's right. Cigarette cards now represent nearly one-tenth of
the whole digital collection.
Maybe, rather than entering the New York Public Library's digital
gallery through the ukiyo-e, you go by way of the Web site's other
opening image, a 1935 photo of a grouchy-looking man emerging from a
basement barbershop on the Bowery. On that path you will find 343
photographs from Berenice Abbott's great work from the 1930's,
"Changing New York." You can flip through the pictures and read all
about Abbott, her project and how it got to the public library.
That's just the tip of the photographic berg.
The digital gallery has a big collection from the Civil War, including
pictures of the dead taken by Alexander Gardner and pictures of the
wounded kept by the United States Sanitary Commission. It has
thousands of rare photographs of Russia and the Soviet Union,
including funny shots of a day nursery at a Moscow factory, and
thousands of color pictures of every block in Lower Manhattan taken in
a single year, 1999, by one man, Dylan Stone.
The Lewis Wickes Hine photographic collection is online too: 48
pictures (and in some cases his captions, too) of the construction of
the Empire State Building, 111 photographs of immigrants at Ellis
Island, 138 photographs of child laborers, and 132 pictures of
libraries and readers.
Speaking of libraries, the New York Public Library's digital gallery
has 5,027 assorted images of them, including a photograph of a library
in Sebastopol taken during the Crimean War, architectural drawings for
a New York library and a few undated typed messages that read like
lascivious fortune cookies: "Grown-ups enjoy reading, also." "Come
into the booth and ask questions about your libraries."
The fetishism of collecting certainly comes through when you browse
the library's digital galleries. There are pages upon pages of shoes
and slippers, floor plans and elevations, actors and performances. One
gorgeous page is a color-combination chart for layering clothes.
Another page shows a lock of hair from the friendship book of Anne
Wagner, a friend of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Fifteen pictures
are from a 1912 book titled "The Fetish Folk of West Africa."
This grand, eccentric collection has uncountable strengths, but the
late 20th century is not among them. That's the way it has to be for a
library that is completely accessible to everyone on earth. Only items
that date before 1923 are in the public domain, free for the plucking.
That's why there is no image from 2003. And for the year 2004, you
will find only one entry, made in error. It's a clothing ad from a
page of a 1904 Scribner's Magazine.
For the weary wanderer, the library has included a special heading on
the opening page of its Web site, "Explore," divided into seven neat
subject areas. If you don't know what you're looking for, it's good to
But if you feel like burrowing, you might try searching inside the
individual collections and libraries within the New York Public
Library. Rummage through the rare books division (pausing a moment to
reflect how incredible it is to be rummaging in a rare books library)
and you will find George Catlin's "North American Indian Portfolio,"
J.-J. Grandville's "Les Fleurs Animées," William Blake's illuminated
book "Milton" and Alvin Langdon Coburn's book of portrait photographs,
"Men of Mark." Warning: some of the collections follow their own
The various parts of the digital library have not been fully
integrated, so the site has a quirky feel. It's often hard to tell,
until you accidentally hit a vein, where the richest parts of the
digital library are.
But surprises can be nice, though. Who would have guessed that a
search of images from the year 2000 would yield only photos of theater
marquees? And that a search for the year 1900 would lead to nearly
1,700 menus from the Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection?
That's a whole lot of shad and kidney stew.
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