Saturday, April 11, 2009

Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Division

This is the first of a series of blogs in which I will look at the major American historical print repositories. In any consideration of such institutions, the Prints & Photographs Division (P&PD) of the Library of Congress (LOC) is one which holds a pride of place in terms of both size and quality. The P&PD has about 14 million images, including photographs, fine art and popular prints, posters, as well as art, architectural and engineering drawings. The collection is vast and also international in scope, but it is primarily focused on American subjects. The largest component of the PP&D collection is by far made up of photographs, but the P&PD also has American prints from every period and of every sort, including many prints that are unique examples.

This collection was primarily built by a simple but effective process, for from 1846 to 1859, and then again from 1865 until the present, the LOC has been a national copyright deposit center. During this period, any print copyrighted in this country was supposed to have an example sent in to a copyright deposit center. Prior to 1870, the LOC was one of several copyright deposit centers so many, but not all, prints in this period were sent to the LOC. But then with the copyright law of 1870, the LOC became the only official national copyright deposit center. This law radically changed the nature of the LOC, making it the nation’s greatest repository of the output of American authors, artists, and publishers of all sorts. With that law, the LOC soon became the most comprehensive collection of American prints. It has been estimated that 90 percent of the items in the LOC graphic arts collection were acquired through copyright deposits.

Besides its copyright deposit acquisitions, the P&PD has many other strong collections, for instance it has one of the best collections of British political cartoons, second only to that found in the British Museum. This is because in 1921, the LOC purchased the superb collection of the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, a collection built by George III and George IV. As a complement to the British historical prints, the LOC has probably the finest collection of contemporary prints of the American Revolution, a collection that is comprehensively documented in my partner, Donald H. Cresswell’s book The American Revolution in Drawings and Prints .

The best way to access the collections at the LOC is to go in person, though help is available for those who cannot visit, as explained on the P&PD web site Luckily, the LOC has entered the internet age with enthusiasm and the P&PD has an online catalogue which provides access to about one half of the division’s holdings. Though there are many items not available on-line, this still provides internet access to an impressive number of prints. The on-line entries for the prints contain much useful information, and many of the prints are also illustrated. This P&PD catalogue is definitely one of the best internet resources for antique prints.

Besides the P&PD catalogue, the LOC has developed the “American Memory” web site. I cannot do better than to quote from the LOC as to the mission of this site:
American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.

As stated, the American Memory website exhibits many items besides prints, including a fair bit of photographic and cartographic material, but prints are well represented. Almost every theme on the site contains some exhibits with some prints, but of particular note are the exhibits on Panoramic Maps (bird’s eye views), African-American sheet music, and Broadsides and other printed ephemera.

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