November 05, 2005
Debbie’s review of the New York Public Library’s Picture Research
The Picture Collection Online is an image resource site for those who seek knowledge and inspiration from visual materials. It is a collection of 30,000 digitized images from books, magazines and newspapers as well as original photographs, prints and postcards, mostly created before 1923.
Having used several of these sites for work (especially LC and HarpWeek), I chose http://digital.nypl.org/mmpco/ the New York Public Library’s Picture Library site to explore. I have in the past occasionally used the NYPL Digital Gallery but I was unfamiliar with the midtown Library’s electronic version of their picture archive, which has only been up for a couple of years. The “hard copy” was created in 1915. The home page is designed to get the user started immediately on their research. It is well laid out with information about the site and the search tool plus a choice as to whether to have normal size or enlarged type. There are also comment and feedback screens throughout the site which gives the impression at least that a caring research librarian isn’t far away if you need further help. It’s unnecessary though as the search tools are very basic and user friendly. There are 3 ways to find a record: a basic search, and advance search with drop down menus and to browse. The browse feature also provides several choices, the fastest being by “Folder” which offers an extensive alphabetic list of topics to choose from. Others (which take a minute or so to call up) include by Title, by Subject (which is really by keyword but off a list), by Name (which appears to be artists, illustrators, publishers, etc but not individuals that are depicted as I tested out, Source by Author and Source by title. A description of these would have been helpful but they were not too difficult to figure out based on the drop down choices. Also I found the “Folder title to be professionally the most interesting as we have been grappling with this kind of limited web list and theirs included broad general topics with in some cases a secondary, narrower subject and for some terms such as Costume, African American or American History, a chronological list. A display by time line would have been nice. But having grown up outside New York, I really enjoyed browsing through the images by topic.
This is a picture library, an archive containing images and not much in the way of text, so its usefulness needs to be evaluated in that context and only as one part of the research that would be done on the topic. Documentary sources are included elsewhere at the NY Public Library site and of course at the library branches. With that in mind, I chose as my pretend project to research images of a couple of downtown landmarks for an upcoming exhibit. I chose to search for Trinity Church, Fraunces Tavern, the Custom House, and Wall Street. Each simple search brought up an average of 3 screens of thumbnail images and title (descriptive titles are in brackets) and the prompt to add to the “My Gallery.” “My Gallery,” is a feature that allows you to save a group of images while the user is online. The idea behind it is to group images that you can the order for a license fee of $30 a piece; I believe institutions have a yearly fee subscription. Unlike many of the museum and historical society sites that allow you to save your selections in a personal folder, once you leave the NY Picture Gallery session you loose your gallery, so if you want to return to those specific images you need to copy either the search or the specific image id numbers or title to a word processing document or print them out.
By clicking on the thumbnail you get a larger image, and if you click on the title, you get a brief fielded object record which may include makers/creators, a Physical Description: consisting of classification type for example: print, engraving, b& w and dimensions in metric and imperial, Material Type, a couple of keyword Subjects, condition : Notes, possible but frequently not a creation date, a Source of the image, and some additional collection management numbers. What makes this archive is particularly useful because this is digital is that much of the information has hyperlinks. For example you can choose to see all images from a particular engraver or publisher or source or subject. So while the actual archive is undoubtedly a wonderfully useful source, the electronic archive version provides the ability to speed up the research. It permits the elimination of non-pertinent materials quickly and easily and has the added benefit of limiting the handling of historic materials (a conservation nightmare) because a researcher can select online which materials they are truly interested in seeing or borrowing in the case of an exhibit.
In addition to the obvious accessibility that this online archive provides, the site guides teachers and researchers in the methods of how to efficiently use an electronic picture library both by having a ‘Classroom” section with general suggestions geared toward elementary, intermediate, and high school students, and in a section called Webquest, which is a tutorial that takes a researcher through a step by step activities with 3 selected scenarios. I chose “Through Your Eyes New York in the 1800s which was a somewhat broader topic than mine but provide some pdf worksheets and guides. I think it’s probably be very helpful to a novices to online research or (I’d like to try it out on my mom at Thanksgiving) but unnecessary probably to most history majors.
This site is good a basic start for picture research. It is not all inclusive however of the holdings of the NY Public library. A search of the same terms in the NYPL Digital Gallery brings up more hits, but I am assuming since this was funded separately it needed its own website search, and it is a good way for the library to continue to digitize their holdings- collection by collection. Also, as with any picture research, the keyword searching is only as good as the cataloguer. More information in description would have been helpful but this is still quite useful. There are times when browsing a related set of images results in expanded groups of materials because the researcher may have a different point of view and certainly will probably have a more refined knowledge base on a specific topic. The search capabilities combined with the hyperlinks to related materials make it very useful though as research tool.
Posted by dschaef1 at November 5, 2005 06:28 PM