Follow-up from tomorrow's NY Times: The Public Library Opens a Web Gallery of Images
- March 3, 2005
The Public Library Opens a Web Gallery of Images
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 drawers.
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 liberating.
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
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
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.
Judy and Bob Huddleston
10643 Sperry Street
Northglenn, CO 80234-3612
Judy and Bob Huddleston
10643 Sperry Street
Northglenn, CO 80234-3612