- Historic Sites
Windows On Another Time
A man who has spent his life helping transform old photos from agreeable curiosities into a vital historical tool explains their magical power to bring the past into the present
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Something really should be done about the photographic collections so that researchers could get at them, suggested MacLeish in his gentlest manner. Not our job, not us, replied Holland; we are purely a division of fine arts. But you have all the photographs; you’ve had them since 1901, when the division was organized, noted the Librarian. We ignored them then, replied Holland, growing testy, and we mean to go on doing so. His note ended by answering a question about the size of the photographic collection: it was, he noted with disdain, “a ton or so of copyright deposits.” The correspondence ended when MacLeish accepted Holland’s resignation. The words and Photographs were added to the divisional title. Over the next few years various collections became accessible to the public, but a hundred years had been lost. When I was Chief, materials kept pouring in faster than we could handle them, and the backlog increased while a small staff coped as best it could with heavy demand for its services.
Weary of the bureaucratic life, and of chipping away at Gibraltar with a penknife, I took my leave after only a few years. Things are better now, I learn. There are a few more staff members, and cataloguing is assailing the backlog. New videodisks, with storage capacities of up to fifty-four thousand images on just one side of a platter the size of a large Victrola record, are being slowly created. With them researchers can race through pictures rapidly, punching out identifying cards as they wish, so that pictures can be ordered. The Prints and Photographs Reading Room is the most open photographic archive in this country, its resources unsurpassed, its service to visitors good. The division, understaffed as it is, nevertheless leads the way in designing the way pictorial materials are catalogued and organized for the country at large.
However good a face one puts on it, the fact remains that great historical treasures—a majority of that part of our “usable past” contained in the photographic collections—are either unavailable or totally buried.
Yet even if vast amounts of money and effort were forthcoming on their behalf, the problems are daunting. The condition of many old collections is often deplorable, requiring extensive preservation work. Captioning—writing down the who-what-where of pictures made in other eras—is a big job, requiring a rather special, intimate historical knowledge. The sheer size of a good many collections defies the organizer as well. At the Library of Congress, I recall, the entire Look magazine collection is estimated to contain five million images. They are arranged only by the titles of photographic assignments, roughly chronologically. The research material is mainly what was printed in the magazine for the small portion of this vast file that got into print. There is no subject breakdown, therefore, so that only the most determined researcher could tackle this otherwise golden trove of social history—and now, for various legal reasons, it has been closed to public use indefinitely. Also at the Library, the photo files of several defunct New York newspapers, the World-Telegram, the Journal-American, and the lamented Herald Tribune (which ended their days in brief alliance as the World Journal Tribune), are all jammed together in 173 five-drawer filing cabinets, stacked in a warehouse, valuable history sandwiched between movie starlets and nonsense, a mass of duplications idiosyncratically catalogued, available to no one. It is much easier, in fact, to get at the decade or two before newspapers had their own photographers, at least for New York City subjects, in the collection of George Grantham Bain, who ran a news service there before World War I. Some one hundred and twenty thousand glass negatives by Bain and his men are in the Library, with their own cataloguing system, although no one has ever had time or funds to have prints made for many of them. Some collections are very well organized and accessible, like the famous Farm Security Administration collection, which, despite its formal title, is really a nonpareil record of America in the years of the Depression. The fact that you can get at it easily and have prints made has, in my view, a lot to do with its celebrated status. Of course, it is splendid work as well. You can get at things in albums, too, like Hermann Goering’s, or those of Lewis Mine, W. E. B. Du Bois, or Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who presented a fine set of leather-bound books of albumen photographs on his Turkish Empire—at least on its more agreeable aspects—to the United States in 1893. You can get at things in open, public files, albeit at some risk of wear and tear (and theft), but all over America vast amounts of history are buried, inaccessible—even unexplored—and are sinking into dust.