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Prints and Photographs Division

arrow graphicScope of the Collections
Picture Processes: A Chronology
Researching Images





Scope of the Collections
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Freighting in the Black Hills. John C.H. Grabill. Between 1887 and 1893. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

The sheer vastness and variety of Prints and Photographs Division holdings, which comprise an estimated 13.5 million items, make the division a rich resource for researchers in women's history.

Chronological and Geographical Strengths

  • Collection materials relating to women in American history date from before the American Revolution to the present day. Because photographs make up the bulk of the collections, the holdings are strongest for the period between 1860 and 1970.
  • Although some of the division's collections are strong in coverage of the American West, women do not figure prominently in them. Coverage of women tends to be stronger for the eastern states, to the extent that the geographic location is apparent in the pictorial materials at all. Among the exceptions, where women in the American West do appear are:

Images for Commercial Purposes

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Mary Anderson, full-length portrait, standing, facing left; as Galatea. Copyright 1883. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

The collections encompass the kinds of pictorial materials routinely found in historical societies, government archives, and art museums. Unlike many of these institutions, however, the Prints and Photographs Division stands out for its mammoth holdings of visual materials originally created for commercial purposes, including images intended for sale directly to the public or those designed for use in publications or advertising.

The Library's relationship to the Copyright Office has contributed greatly to this strength. Starting in the 1870s, artists and publishers who wished to protect their rights in a pictorial work deposited copies of it in the U.S. Copyright Office. By no means did all of the deposited images enter the Library's collections, but hundreds of thousands of visual items were retained and are now part of the division's holdings. The variety of images acquired in this way include the following:

  • Currier & Ives lithographs, such as the company's 1869 satire on the women's rights campaign
  • Napoleon Sarony's portraits of theatrical personality Mary Anderson
  • photographs of Native American women made by Edward Curtis for his multivolume work The North American Indian
  • circus posters highlighting the exploits of performers such as Madam Ada Castello
  • panoramic photographs of women's colleges

The Prints and Photographs Division has also, over the years, accumulated a wealth of graphic images created for use in magazines, books, and newspapers, as well as vast collections of photographs, referred to as “photo morgues,” assembled by news photo agencies and by three major American publications:

Other Sources of Images

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Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows - Madam Ada Castello. Copyright 1899. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

Although images designed for commercial or publication purposes are a particular strength of the collections, pictures of many types and depicting many subjects can be found in the division's holdings, acquired from a great variety of sources.

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