How It Works to Be Curious

Laura Glazer with Jessica Cline

“You find that people absolutely love the materiality of holding pictures in their hand and then looking at two things next to each other, being able to compare or having a whole array of images.”


When you need a picture of a hot dog, doing an Internet search quickly satisfies that visual craving. But for some researchers, digital results generated from an algorithm won’t suffice. That’s when the New York Public Library (NYPL) Picture Collection can help, where clipped photos, illustrations, postcards, maps, and more are organized in thousands of subject headings and visitors can browse all of them by hand and even use their library cards to check them out.

When I first visited the Picture Collection in the main branch of the NYPL, I felt like a kid in a candy store, excited by the possibility of finding an image I didn’t even know I was looking for. “There’s this serendipity of walking to the shelf and finding something that you weren’t expecting and looking in the folder and seeing an image or images that are surprising to you,” says Jessica Cline, Supervising Librarian of the Collection. With a background in fine arts research, Cline has been a librarian at the NYPL since 2005 and in the Picture Collection since 2016.

Starting in 1915, NYPL librarians like Cline organized file folders by subject and found images to go inside them. Now a team of four continues the practice, while assisting visitors in exploring the Collection with frequent squeals of delight from researchers discovering unexpected images plucked from over a million options at their fingertips.

A photograph by Alice Austen called “Newsgirl” taken in 1896 and included in the Street Views of New York City collection of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Newsgirl” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1896. 

Laura Glazer: In your experience, how does being able to browse through bookshelves and file folders impact the visual research process? 

Jessica Cline: It’s a little hard to explain, but there’s this kind of serendipitous moment when looking for visual materials and looking for inspiration or ideas—walking up to the stack and pulling off a subject heading that the librarian’s given you—and it’s exactly what you’re thinking of, but then noticing that right next to it is something completely unrelated, but alphabetically interesting. That it’s next to this other subject, because we arrange our pictures by subject alphabetically, so completely different things can be next to each other on the shelf. That can take you down a whole different avenue of research and thought process that you weren’t even expecting.

Laura: That sounds like something you have observed.

Jessica: Absolutely! It’s a conversation we have as librarians a lot with researchers. They want to tell you, “I was looking for this and look what I found, this amazing thing and I had no idea you have this or that.” They get very excited and it’s great to share that with them.

Laura: That brings to mind how the librarian in a Picture Collection is a hub. Even though you have your library knowledge base, you have the “people knowledge base,” too. It’s like you’re always growing your subject headings capacity.

Jessica: Absolutely. We share information between the community of people that use the Collection and the librarians. And it’s really how the Collection is built. It’s all built on that interest and subjects that people ask for. Just slowly over time, it’s grown from that community, that knowledge base, and that sharing. 

Laura: I know you’ve gotten this question a lot. I was reading that New York Times article that was fantastic and really following the fight to save the Picture Collection being open. It’s so easy for someone to say “it’s obsolete, we have Google image search.” How can we respond to that? 

Jessica: I have a couple of ways of responding to that. First of all, I’ll just go back to the Collection itself. A lot of what we have in the physical files is still in copyright and so it cannot be digitized in that way.

It’s also a lot of what you can’t find on the internet, either because it’s in copyright, or because it was something that was published inside of a book and we’ve taken that book apart, taken out the picture and taken it away from maybe what the subject of the book was and just looked at the picture itself and put it under [a] totally new [subject heading]. So, it becomes a different process of what you’d actually find on Google. 

Google also works in algorithms. The more someone looks at a picture, the more likely it’s going to come up for you for that search, which is completely opposite of the way the Picture Collection works. You have no idea which picture was used the most. So when you’re looking in the files, you can come up with anything, rather than seeing the same images that come up every time you do a search on Google over and over again because the algorithm is telling you, “This is what everybody wants to see when they look for that.” So you can find all kinds of different things. 

When we’re looking for images to represent a subject, we try to find a huge variety of ways to show that subject. We will have drawings and photographs and prints and paintings and just any kind of representation, so that we can see that subject in a variety of ways that really represent it. That informs you on the different ways people have seen that subject over many, many years, and not just from one time period.

We source all of our images ourselves. So you know exactly where we took the image from. We give it a source number where we record the book, the author—a citation basically—but we just give it a number. The sourcing allows us to authenticate the pictures and let people know that what they’re looking at is what they think it is, rather than being taken from various places on the web and put up on Pinterest and you don’t know exactly where it’s from.

It’s easy to go to Google images and just look for something very quickly. If you need a picture of a random cat, that’s probably a good way to go. There are definitely good uses for that. But if you want something like what a kitchen in 1967 looked like in a house in Midwest America, it’s harder to find the details and the colors and the specific things that you might want to see for a set design or a film or something that you’re making. You don’t necessarily want to see the same image everyone else saw. 

Laura: You mentioned when you seek images, you’re looking for varied mediums. I’m curious, who is seeking the images? 

Jessica: It’s the librarians. 

Laura: Wait, you get to go through things and decide if it gets put into the Picture Collection?!

Jessica: Yes, that’s exactly what we do!

It’s a lot of fun because you’ll have a book that’s all on one subject. If you wanted to put all the pictures in the one subject, you just may as well keep the book together. There’s no point in taking it apart then. So it’s really a challenge to look at the book and think about what is shown in this picture and what can that information represent to someone who might not have thought of this subject? Or what are people asking for a lot that we could use to fill that need? 

It’s a harder process to pick subjects than it might seem at first because there’s a lot more thought involved in it. We always pick the subjects after we’ve taken the book apart so we can look at the picture on its own as its individual thing and then choose a subject to put it there in that way. 

Laura: How have you approached adding conceptual headings, like “love”? 

Jessica: You think about what people are going to ask for when they want to see what love is and that could be any kind of love, it doesn’t have to be romantic. That’s actually a lot of what we ask people when they come to the reference desk with a conceptual idea. We say, “What are you expecting to see in that picture? What comes to your mind first?” Then we can steer them to the subjects that might encapsulate that idea. 

Laura: What’s the process for helping a researcher think through a topic that might not have a clear subject heading?

Jessica: One thing we might do is get them started with the idea, and if they find an image that they like a lot we can help them toward other images that might have that similar subject. 

The entrance to the Picture Collection in December 2021 included a large sign announcing an exhibit of photos by artist Taryn Simon of images she selected from the Collection over the past 10 years. The Collection contains over one million original prints, photographs, posters, postcards, and illustrations from books, magazines, and newspapers, classified into over 12,000 subjects headings. Photo by Laura Glazer

Laura: What’s it like to watch people use the Picture Collection, like sitting at the tables, sorting through files? What are the behaviors and techniques you’ve observed? Do you see sparks fly? Are you seeing collaboration happen in person? 

Jessica: Yes. It probably depends on the type of researcher or the research they’re doing. There are definitely people that come together or even come and meet in the Collection and will be showing each other pictures. They sit down with the folder and a family member and they’ll be like, “Look at this, look at this,” and it’s great to see that. Usually they’ve got a few folders and a large space on the table. They’ve got piles where they’ve separated out images they are interested in and the ones they’re going to put back and they’ve got maybe their notebook or their computer next to them. 

You find that people absolutely love the materiality of holding pictures in their hand. And then looking at two things next to each other, being able to compare or having a whole array of images. That experience seems to be very important for the researcher. 

You do see a lot of excitement when finding something or people will find something and come and show you, “Look at this, can you believe I found this?” or “Look at this weird thing, can you believe this outfit?” They love to share that experience. 

Laura: Have you encountered researchers who didn’t know each other connecting over what they were doing at a table separately?

Jessica: Absolutely. Or somebody is looking at a file and you look over and notice people saying, “Oh, look at that, what are you looking at? What subject is that?” You’ll hear these little conversations happening. 

Laura: What does it mean to be “visually literate?”

Jessica: I think it’s being able to understand when you have a picture, identifying “What are you seeing in the picture? What is it saying to you?” Just to understand what you’re looking at and going around the picture and taking in all of the elements that are shown. And then asking, is this an image that is just for information purposes? Was it in a travel brochure and it’s displaying exactly how the city looks? Or is it trying to advertise something specific to me and make me focus on that one element? Or is it just for aesthetic purposes?

Why was this picture made? What kind of information is it giving to me when I’m looking at it and can I change how I’m looking at it from the original purpose and how can it inform the research I’m doing?

Maybe I’m researching Geneva, and this tells me something about the shops during this time period that I didn’t find in a book. There’s just visual information that can give you more about something that you weren’t necessarily expecting to read about.

Researchers using the open stacks of the Picture Collection in December 2021. Large tables are also available in the front area of the room. Photo by Laura Glazer.

Laura: When you talk about researchers using the Picture Collection, who do you consider and include as a researcher?

Jessica: I think anybody with an information need. That can be someone who walked in off the street and didn’t know we existed, but all of a sudden thought, “Do you have pictures of World War II tanks? I’ve always wanted to see more of those.” Or it could be giraffes! There are children who come and want to see all the cats that you have or all the kittens and that fulfills that need at that moment, that information-seeking need.

There’s very serious scholars that come in looking to write a book on a subject and there’s also just curiosity. 

Laura: Is there anything coming up at the Picture Collection that would be good for me to know about?

Jessica: Yes. We have a fellowship that we’re putting together for Picture Collection research, which I’m super excited about. Basically, we want to offer a space for people who use the Picture Collection, whether you’re an artist or a scholar, however you want to use the Picture Collection to focus what you’re doing there and then be able to communicate that back to the public in some way, whether you have an exhibition or you want to do a program with us, or workshop, some kind of collaborative process with us in the library, as well as your own work. Then sharing how you’ve used the Collection and highlighting that and letting other people know how they can use the Collection.

Jessica Cline is the Supervising Librarian of the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library. 

Laura Glazer is an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. 

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