At the Library of Congress, a photographic treasure of random beauty
So I went to the Reading Room in the Prints and Photographs Division in the Madison building of the library, where rows of large brown filing cabinets hold treasure troves of documents. A cork wall displayed book covers featuring photographs from the library, on subjects as varied as baseball and architect Eero Saarinen. The division holds over 16 million images (on and offsite) of just about everything imaginable: courtroom sketches and comic drawings as well as lithographs, fine etchings, photography” Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange and a daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln. About 1.6 million are digitized.
Turns out Miscellaneous High Demand Items isn’t actually a collectible, at least not in the way I had imagined (i.e. a sturdy box, with a pile of happily messy photos offering serendipity record store vintage style hours). Instead, it’s an online collection of over 130,000 images. Items classified in this category lacked space in another specific collection. They were requested and printed for use in a book, for example, or an exhibition – hence the “high demand”.
Scholars come to the Prints and Photographs Division for many reasons, the division’s reference librarian Hanna Soltys told me, including schoolwork or publishing, or because they want to print and hang. a favorite picture. Sitting in front of a computer, Soltys drew up a grid of images. “The beauty of high-demand miscellaneous items is really kind of that, I think,” she says, “being able to click ‘View All.’ … You scroll and there is no rhyme or reason why the images appear here. It’s only because it appeared somewhere, or someone bought a copy of it, or that it was used in an exhibition and therefore appears in this bucket.
“I’m usually looking for something specific, and then one of the hits can come from that category,” says professional researcher Athena Angelos. She owns (and is) Pictorial Research Services of Washington, DC. From a specific image page, it can browse other pages as well. “It branches out,” she says.
The images a user might search for are often also available in the library’s most frequently updated free-to-use and reuse sets. (Topics include Ice Cream, Natural Disasters, Fish and Fishing, Movie Theaters, and Hats.) To optimize results, users can search across all collections. For example, my recent search for “circus horse” yielded 62 hits in High Demand Sundries. But a search of the entire online catalog turned up 168 results, and if you try “circus posters”, which often include horses, you’ll get 584 results. In the reading room, Soltys had placed some of the images of this enlargement research: a circa 1909 photograph of an “educated horse” looking at a blackboard, and one of a performer and her sturdy dapple gray. Others included a photograph of a Barnum & Bailey representative at a horse auction and a stereogram of Piccadilly Circus in London, in which a horse-drawn carriage advertises an animal feed called Molassine Meal.
Similar discoveries may occur when searching inside the Reading Room, where some original items are stored. Soltys pulled at a filing cabinet drawer that slid open with a satisfying whoosh, and deftly flipped through photographs stored in protective sleeves. The dividers bore labels: carnivals, car parks, cattle fairs.
To sift through the drawers, says Soltys, “you don’t have to come in and tell us what you’re doing; you don’t need to get permission to enter. Anyone with a reader registration card can take a look. But if you need something specific, Soltys advises you to get in touch in advance, in case, for example, the material you are looking for is stored off-site or is too fragile to handle.
Angelos pointed out that because of their specialized knowledge, the librarians of the Prints and Photographs Division are key resources. So did Mike Constandy, owner of Westmoreland Research, whom I also asked about the interesting discoveries he had made. “From a searcher’s perspective, ‘cool’ is actually finding what you’re looking for,” he said.
This feature may not be a selling point for browsing high-demand sundries, but, as Soltys said in a later email, the collection has its place: “In essence, the compartment” miscellaneous items in high demand” is a way to keep items from floating around in the catalog by themselves. To me, this is a collection that invites some restrained chaos into your research endeavors. This is an engraved illustration of Ursa Major , from 1825. This is Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo Marx. Two girls stand on a beach in 1897, raising their left foot. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re looking for. You just have to stay open to what you might find. Demand is high, even if it’s just yours.
Eliza McGraw is a writer in Washington.