The Picture Collection has about one and a half million circulating images clipped from books and magazines and filed under some 12,000 subject headings. The Collection also includes large numbers of vintage postcards and greeting cards, plus around 150,000 non-circulating reference images from the beginning of the 1900s and earlier. Forty-five thousand of these latter items have been scanned and are part of The Library’s Digital Collections.
The Picture Collection’s unique arrangement of items by subject makes it useful to people in many creative fields, including artists, documentary filmmakers, set, prop and costume makers for stage and film, graphic novel writers, and fashion designers. This collection has been used by some of the most well-known and influential visual artists in New York and the world, including Joseph Cornell, Andy Warhol, and Taryn Simon, and it continues to serve the needs of the creative community to this day.
Within two years of the opening of The New York Public Library's central building in 1911, the Print Room found itself overwhelmed with requests for prints strictly from a subject point of view. Most of these requests came from artists and illustrators in the employ of New York City's burgeoning graphic arts industries and cultural enterprises, which included movie studios, Broadway and vaudeville theatres, advertising agencies, publishing companies, and fashion houses, all competing for new ideas and pressuring their artists and illustrators to deliver them. The Print Room, a repository for fine art prints, did have a wealth of the sort of material that was sought, but its holdings constituted a rare and fragile collection that could not withstand heavy use. Moreover, these holdings were cataloged by artist only, not by subject.
In 1914, the Circulation Department began saving plates, posters, postcards, and photographs for the new sort of "reader." The Library's annual report for 1915 announced: ". . . a picture collection for lending was desirable. Requests have come from schools, city history clubs, moving picture actors, and advertisers. . . . Borrowers include not only people who have been cardholders in the Branches but an increasing number whose first interest in the Library was aroused by the picture collection."
By the end of that year, 17,991 pictures had been prepared for circulation. Many of these pictures came from old magazines and books that might otherwise have been sold for scrap paper. Donations began to pour in. In 1926, with the growing collection now housed in Room 67 of the central building, Ellen Perkins, formerly a chief cataloger in the Circulation Department, was given the position of Head of the Picture Collection, and the Picture Collection was formally established.
In this modest way began a collection that is today a major resource for visual ideas. Over the years, the Picture Collection staff built and organized so diverse and comprehensive a collection that libraries, corporations, and governments from around the world have studied its structure and consulted its librarians in order to apply its lessons to their own picture libraries. Historically, the development of the collection illustrates the way in which effective approaches to service and cataloging for visual materials evolved, and how the cataloging of pictures came to diverge from the traditional bibliographical orientation of descriptive cataloging, emphasizing instead the maximum number of access points to a picture's subject content.
Read more about the history of the Picture Collection and the contributions of Romana Javitz, whose leadership shaped the Collection profoundly over many years, in Worth Beyond Words: Romana Javitz and The New York Public Library's Picture Collection, from which this text has been adapted.