[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


    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 ([2]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
    Japanese plane.

    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
    start here.

    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
    filing systems.

    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.


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=SARAH%20BOXER&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=SARAH%20BOXER&inline=nyt-per
    2. http://www.nypl.org/digital/digitalgallery.htm

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