Worth Beyond Words: Romana Javitz and The New York Public Library's Picture Collection
By Anthony T. Troncale, formerly Associate Head, Digital Unit,
Preservation Division, The New York Public Library
The following article was originally published in the Library's journal, Biblion. An exhibition about Javitz, Subject Matters: Photography, Romana Javitz, and The New York Public Library, was on view through March of 1998 in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (then known as the Humanities and Social Sciences Library).
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. Print Room staff therefore directed artists and illustrators to the Art Division to consult the clipping files there, or to the Children's Room in the Circulation Division, where illustrations could be found in children's books and encyclopedias.
The situation at the Library, and the increasing use of pictures as a means of communication and enrichment in modern culture, resulted from the explosive growth of the printing arts at the turn of the century. The industrial impetus created by the sudden and simultaneous late nineteenth-century advancements in photography and photolithography set the stage for the coming modern age in the visual and graphic arts. Improvements in printing presses allowed for more color illustrations, and halftone screens brought better photographic reproduction. Innovations in camera and film design, particularly George Eastman's Kodak camera and the dry plate negative, contributed to the growth of a large amateur photography movement. Soon, the American public was bombarded with graphically oriented media. This created a huge demand for illustrations and eye-catching layouts in advertising, magazines, newspapers, and movie and theatre posters, as well as for textile, architectural, and industrial designs.
In these circumstances, the Library's solution of sending people to the Children's Room, where the content was inadequate, or to the Art Division, where the materials could not leave the room, was not enough. 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 card holders in the Branches, but an increasing number whose first interest in the Library was aroused by the picture collection."(1)
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. As word spread about the availability of the pictures, the Library assigned Ellen Perkins, a chief cataloger in the Circulation Department, to oversee the program's development. In 1926, with the growing collection now housed in Room 67 of the central building, Ms. Perkins 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, at five million items, 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.
In most early attempts at subject cataloging of visual materials, catalogers simply approached pictures as if they were books. As a result, they failed to tap the multiple uses and meanings of pictorial materials and to organize them into accessible subject headings.(2) Changes in language and terminology, along with obscure subject arrangements, often diluted the potential of the images for use. Where a college library might maintain collections of Lewis Hine's and Jacob Riis's photographs in their social work departments, with illustrative slides made available for art and architecture students and faculty, public library picture collections, notably New York City's, had to serve a more eclectic constituency. Representatives of commercial, industrial, and artistic interests all had specific needs, and each had its own way of describing the materials it needed.
Some of the problems in early attempts at subject arrangement were encountered by Ellen Perkins when, soon after her appointment, she visited the Newark Public Library to see a picture collection started by John Cotton Dana, a pioneer in many fields of librarianship, as well as the founder of the Newark Museum. Having created the first known picture collection in 1889 at the Denver Public Library, Dana further developed the idea at Newark, where he was appointed chief librarian in 1902. Dana's awareness of businessmen's and educators' needs for access to library materials served as a model for Perkins in formulating her own scheme for the much larger arena of New York City.(3) But Dana's subject headings for pictures were problematic. In his idiosyncratic filing system, for example, one would have to look under "F" for "Forms of Land and Water" to find "Niagara Falls," a situation reflecting nineteenth-century bibliographical practice and hierarchical mind-set. A reassessment of subject headings would be needed to reflect the fast-changing styles and fashions of the machine age and their new nomenclatures.
If The New York Public Library was to adapt to the era of mechanical reproduction of visual images, it would need someone more attuned to contemporary culture than Perkins. That person was Romana Javitz (1903–1980). While studying painting at the Art Student's League, Javitz began working part-time, first in the Children's Room in 1919, and later at the Picture Collection in 1924. Perhaps drawn to the collection instinctively because of her artistic nature, Javitz found the Picture Collection a perfect fit for her interests and talents: the role of purveyor of visual ideas suited her well. With the retirement of Perkins in 1929, Javitz was appointed head of the Picture Collection.(4)
Born in Russia to Polish parents, Javitz immigrated to America with her family. Since her mother was a hat milliner and her father an importer of fine and rare woods, Romana and her brother, Alex, enjoyed a comfortable upbringing and a middle-class education in the Bronx and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Javitz's immigrant background made her sympathetic to the thousands of people who sought self-education at the Library. Her interest and training in the arts served her well in understanding the possibilities that pictorial material offered to the artist, the designer, and the student alike.
Before she assumed the role of head of the Picture Collection, Javitz traveled to Europe to study art and the use of picture collections by state organizations:
In 1925 and 1926 I visited libraries and museums in Italy, Austria, Poland, Germany, France and England. At that time I studied the organization and content of documentary pictorial collections. I was especially interested in how these foreign governments perpetuated in pictures changing customs and costumes of their own peoples. Everywhere I went I found that the record of folk arts [was] exceedingly rich and well preserved and that the governments had been interested in subsidizing this recording and documentation. . . . It seemed shameful to me then that we had not developed pride enough in our own past to record the appearance of what the people wore, the details of their kitchens, their tools, their houses. (5)
Upon her return to America, Javitz began to remedy the lack of attention Americans then gave to their own folk arts and crafts, especially those of African Americans. One of her first initiatives upon taking up her Picture Collection duties was to offer assistance to Arthur Alfonso Schomburg (1874–1938), who was Curator of the Library's Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints from 1932 to 1938. Javitz provided him with important prints, photographs, and plates on African American subjects culled from the Picture Collection, and in 1937, at her request, Roy Stryker, of the government's Resettlement Administration, donated duplicate photographs depicting African Americans.(6)
Another project that Javitz helped initiate resulted in one of the most comprehensive records of folk arts and design in America. In 1935, Javitz, along with artist-users of the collection, formulated the idea for an Index of American Design and had it accepted as a Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. The plan was to hire unemployed commercial artists and illustrators to record systematically, in watercolors, the decorative arts of America's rural and urban regions. Holger Cahill (1887–1960), a successor to Dana at the Newark Public Library and national director of the Federal Arts Project from 1935 to 1943, described the founding of the Index in a catalogue produced by the National Gallery of Art:
The Index idea as it was later developed by the WPA Federal Art Project resulted from discussions between Romana Javitz, head of The New York Public Library's Picture Collection, and artists who came to the Library for research. This was in the early spring of 1935. Miss Javitz and the Picture Collection staff had recognized for some time the need for a comprehensive source record of American design. Prominent among the artists who participated in the discussions at the Library was Ruth Reeves, a textile designer and painter. She brought the idea to Mrs. Frances Pollack, head of Educational Projects for the New York City Emergency Relief Administration, and suggested that artists employed on Government projects carry it out. Later, Miss Reeves, who was the missionary of the Index idea, brought it to the attention of WPA officials in Washington and to Edward Bruce, head of the Section on Painting and Sculpture. Mrs. Pollack immediately saw the Index as a solution for the problem of commercial artist unemployment and asked Miss Javitz to formulate a plan. (7)
The artists would record everything from iron railings to furniture, toys to tools, kitchens to carpentry. Administered by Javitz, Reeves, and Pollack in New York City, the Index soon sprouted offices in a number of states across the country, employing hundreds of artists and illustrators. The thousands of watercolors that were produced now form an important record of American crafts and design. The entire collection was later transferred to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it still helps scholars to define the American aesthetic.
Javitz was much concerned with access to the collections, and she introduced important innovations. In the early 1930s, she found the Picture Collection besieged by foreign visitors and immigrant artists who asked again and again for pictures illustrating American terms and words or objects of American material culture. In 1931, she overcame the language barrier by instituting a policy requiring the public to record their requests for pictures by describing, or drawing, them on a call slip.(8) This resulted in better communication between users and staff and helped develop a current language for use in cross-indexing and new headings. It also helped identify and maintain a record of subjects that were in demand.
In 1934, Javitz addressed the need to devise a better system of subject access for the ever-growing collection, which then numbered 667,967 items, a 42 percent increase over the preceding year. Any new system would need to reflect new commercial and industrial vocabularies and interests and the current nomenclature of artists. To update, cross-index, and source the entire subject headings file, including large movie stills and postcard collections, were big tasks. To accomplish them required the resources of several artist-trained workers to help weed, sort, and describe thousands of pictures. Javitz found such artists through the Works Progress Administration, which initially provided thirty-one workers (later increased to forty). This team systematically eliminated outdated materials from the collections (nineteenth-century prints, for example), added newer, fresher, more modern materials, and streamlined the process of getting the materials to the public and then back on the shelves. Numbers written or stamped on each picture led the user to a catalog card index of original sources.(9)
Keeping current a system of subject headings based upon the changing vocabulary of the New York City public was nothing less than daunting. But Javitz and her staff went even beyond this, and adopted a flexible and eclectic assortment of schemes based on Regions, Styles, Types, and Year. Subheading arrangements depended on the subjects' geographical, stylistic, or chronological identities.
Interviewed at her home around 1970, Javitz used the subjects of labor and costume to illustrate the scheme:
It seems to me that the subject heading establishment can follow a need. The scheme of subdivision is the key to the arrangement of the material within the subject heading divisions. For example, if your heading is Laborers, then you are going to subdivide them chronologically. But if it's before 1900, it is filed chronologically, and then by country, if it's after 1900, it's filed regionally. Now you may wonder why. There is a quantitative problem there (and differentiations between countries pictorially) because of the introduction of picture magazines and the history of photo printing. The quantity for the twentieth century is great. It's also more regional because of publications being all over the world. So if you are looking for a picture of labor in the 1600's, let's say capital and labor, the material is so sparse and will always remain sparse. Now, in certain aspects, this works backwards. For example, Costume, which we use for Fashion, is arranged chronologically for the twentieth century, because fashion is an artificial dress dictated each year. Beginning in the 1900's, it's arranged by date without a breakdown of country. Before 1900 it's arranged by a breakdown of country and then by date. (10)
This latter scheme was adopted because peasant costumes of the nineteenth century generally reflected regional tastes, while the fashion-oriented twentieth century often reflected styles that transcended borders and regions and changed yearly.
But whatever its organization, the collection could be only as good as the quality of the pictures themselves. In the 1930s and 40s, several major acquisitions helped to build the Picture Collection into a world-class resource. Movie studios used the Picture Collection often and recognized its importance by establishing depository arrangements with the Library. Several newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and Newsweek, donated current news photographs from their files. Ten thousand photographs of paintings were purchased in 1936 from the Frick Collection for the files. Exhibitions were staged to highlight aspects of the collection; typical was an exhibit entitled Romance of the Railroad for which several railroad companies donated photographs illustrating all aspects of the railroad industry.(11) Eager to represent current lifestyles and trends, the Picture Collection, through the cooperation of local businesses, obtained photographs of outstanding window displays, architecture, vehicles, fashions, vaudeville acts, and the dance. In 1934, the Public Works Art Project donated ninety-one fine prints and twenty paintings that would form the beginning of a circulating collection of framed pictures for use in the branch libraries.(12) In addition, Javitz began to purchase books, pamphlets, and periodicals specifically for the purpose of cutting out the plates and illustrations, to selectively enhance the collection in subject areas that had been inadequately documented. While this deconstruction of material often horrified other librarians, Javitz reveled in the practice. To her thinking, dismembering a book not only allowed for redistribution of its pieces toward other, perhaps better, purposes, but also demystified the book as an object.
Among the thousands of items donated to the Picture Collection in 1936 and 1937 were photographs from the U.S. government's Resettlement Administration. This was a New Deal program to assist farmers and their tenants who had been displaced by drought and economic ruin. The Photographic Section of the RA, later renamed the Farm Security Administration, was created to document the plight of those in need. Roy E. Stryker, the head of the Photographic Section, hired several talented photographers to cover the rural and urban communities affected by the Depression. At the suggestion of the painter Ben Shahn (1898–1969), one of the photographers he hired, Stryker began regularly to send duplicate photographs from the Resettlement Administration to the Picture Collection. (13) Also in 1937, Stryker donated a prepared exhibition for the Picture Collection entitled Soil and Land, in which RA photographs graphically presented the struggle against drought and erosion. (14)
Stryker's relationship with Romana Javitz constitutes a great meeting of pictorial minds, and their friendship would last a lifetime. Stryker knew of Javitz's work through Shahn and Walker Evans, another RA/FSA photographer, who brought Stryker to the Picture Collection in 1936. Stryker sought Javitz's advice on the organization of the Resettlement Administration files by sending a third photographer from the RA/FSA, John Vachon, to New York in 1937 to study the Picture Collection's arrangement.(15) Recognizing the importance of the government's program to document the economic and social conditions of rural America, Javitz went down to Washington and pleaded with Stryker to have the subject content immediately and thoroughly analyzed as the pictures came in, "so that immediately you could find any subject," and "tried to impress upon him the importance of the gathering of data with each picture."(16)
In 1938, the budget for the FSA was cut and some photographers were released, including two of their best, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. By the early 1940s, with war production creating demand for agricultural products, the farm economy picked up and the FSA was urged to project a more upbeat image of America. Stryker knew that certain senators and representatives in Congress considered the archive a bad reflection on the country, and consequently there was a real threat that the photographs would be impounded. In an interview with Richard Doud in 1965, Javitz recalled that in the early 1940s she began to get anonymous packages of photographs in the mail at the Picture Collection:
Then, one day in great triumph Stryker appeared in person and said, "It's all right now, we can tell you. We had a meeting and decided that if Congress was going to impound all these pictures . . . as you know some senators were eager to have it done . . . , at least a duplicate file would be available in New York. But we didn't dare send it to you officially until the decks were clear. (17)
The decks were cleared when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a directive giving the FSA archive to the Library of Congress, whose Fine Arts Division would soon be reorganized as the Prints and Photographs Division.(18)
The FSA program ceased operation in 1943, and the photographic activities of the Historical Section were absorbed into the Office of War Information. Stryker transferred to the OWI as well, and saw to it that the Picture Collection received sets of photographs documenting the war effort at home and at the front. The partial collection of approximately 40,000 FSA/OWI photographs were circulated by the Picture Collection until the 1960s, when they were placed on reserve.
The addition of the FSA duplicates to the Picture Collection did more than enrich its files; it also underscored the rich potential of photographs that were produced without an overriding commercial agenda. Of the FSA pictures, Javitz stated:
. . . when the FSA came to us, they gave us a complete new eye. It was the first time we had images that were clean cut. Before that our pictures were very tainted by commerce from the point of view of selling . . . Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Harper's. They [the FSA photographs] weren't made to sell records or soap or whatnot. . . . Many of these pictures were considered great and beautiful photographs first because of their subject content and secondarily because of the skill of the photographer. I felt in going through the FSA you never felt it was a one-picture deal and that you had this sense of drive that you wanted to see the rest.(19)
In 1939, in her annual report, Javitz summed up her first ten years as head of the Picture Collection:
In these ten years, the Picture Collection changed to an open-shelf type of library, issued its own borrowers' card, developed an unmounted type of picture for circulation, devised a scheme of classification for pictures, made a record of subject headings, started an information file on the sources of pictures and picture materials, created an exhibition and display service with pictures, and organized a subject index to moving picture stills. (20)
That year, all forty of the WPA employees were released, and work on the subject arrangement of and enhancements to the collection came to a halt. But the Picture Collection was now a major resource for the creative public of New York City, and its collections were accessible and of sufficient depth to satisfy the most peculiar of requests. Javitz knew that the Picture Collection was relied on by the commercial and creative communities in New York City, and she also recognized the historical significance of the public acceptance of the pervasive use of pictures in the everyday media:
American creative output is influenced in a great measure by this library service. An endless procession of art in industry derives from the Picture Collection: fabric, stage sets, dress, ornament, jewelry, toys, window displays, book production. . . . The universality and comprehensiveness of its files make this picture collection a particularly rich soil for the yielding of ideas. . . . It may be likened to a giant encyclopedia where pictures are consulted instead of the printed word.
Beginning with the decade of the thirties, the candid camera and picture magazines such as Life and Look came into being with a trail of encouragement in the use of pictures throughout all phases of living. . . . With the development of the candid camera and the widespread attendance of moving pictures, the public becomes visually educated and familiar with more aspects of the world. The advent of television and the flood of picture magazines carry in their wake more and more visual awareness. Pictorial representation now calls for precise representation of fact, although at the same time it allows for more freedom in methods. Artists have a wider range on which to base their designs, since the public is familiar with Balinese dancing and grain elevators, with Diesel engines and orchids. In its documentary function as recorder, the camera has familiarized the public with a vast array of factual appearances.(21)
Javitz truly understood the larger implications of the age of mechanical reproduction. From the point of view of a librarian and educator, she saw the Picture Collection as an encyclopedia of visual knowledge and built a useful system for the dissemination of that knowledge. As an artist, she realized the great potential of pictures as sources of the ideas and stimuli that all creative people need to produce their art. She also clearly understood the democratic nature of free access to materials and their unimpeded use. Finally, she recognized that no language or cultural barriers existed with visual materials. When, in 1939, Walter Benjamin penned his treatise The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which reflected on the implications of the mass production of images and words, Javitz was already contemplating the impact of television on the American public.(22)
In the 1940s, the Library of Congress sought the advice and counsel of Javitz on the organization of its collections. After a visit by Javitz to the Library of Congress's newly organized Prints and Photographs Division in 1944, the acting Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, wrote to the Library's director, Franklin F. Hopper, seeking his cooperation in establishing pictorial standards which would prove of immeasurable benefit to the whole American library system. The problems are many, principally because the subject is, for us at least, a new one. There are, for example, problems of nomenclature and terminology, of assortment and classification, of selection (involving canons of exclusion as well as inclusion), of descriptive cataloging and subject-headings, of adequate guides, handbooks and lists, of reproduction and the legal aspects of reproduction, of integration with other library services and collections, of custody and preservation and maintenance.(23)
In 1957 and 1958, the Library of Congress provided thousands of duplicate copyright deposits of prints and photographs to the Picture Collection in exchange for copy prints and microfilm reels from the New York Public Library's holdings.(24) (Since the 1870s, copyright law has required that two copies of a photograph or print be sent to the Library of Congress for registration.) Among the materials from the Library of Congress were nineteenth-century Civil War and Spanish-American War scenes, cartes-de-visite and cabinet card portraits, travel views, and early American landscapes. Twentieth-century views included works by the photographers Alvin Langdon Coburn, Francis Bruguiere, Carl Moon, Laura Gilpin, and Margaret Bourke-White. Hundreds of images by amateur or aspiring photographers were also included. The amateur views in particular reveal a kind of folk art photography, depicting an abundance of unembellished scenes of American life, both rural and urban.(25)
Today, the Picture Collection still thrives as an essential resource for New York City's creative communities. But the Internet and the emerging technology of digital imaging is revolutionizing how we retrieve and perceive pictures, and it may soon be possible to extend access to the collection to researchers around the world. Along with these new technologies come challenges for today's picture librarians and curators. Maintaining subject terminologies that reflect the diverse cultures present in New York City is challenge enough. With the advent of the global village via the Internet, picture librarians will have to consider the notion of universal access and its cross-cultural, cross-linguistic implications. Copyright issues also loom large. Software now allows for the manipulation of a picture, or even a section of a picture. A specific horizon, a silhouette of a tree, or the face of a man may now be excised and pasted onto any other form of graphic. This provides exciting new creative possibilities for the artist, but it also complicates questions about what constitutes an original work of art and throws into disarray the traditional view of authorship.
With any new revolutionary medium comes the ability to rewrite old norms and standards, just as Javitz did. Librarians will be in a position to write new standards for visual materials in the digital age. The traditional role of picture librarians has been to provide free access to imagery for research and reference. This role may change, and the tools with which the role is executed may change as well. What is important to understand is that in digital form, the picture will finally become equal, in both access and status, to the written word, a fact that would probably have pleased Romana Javitz.
2. The Research Libraries often arranged loose prints and photographs into subject groups and pasted them onto pages for binding. See "French Chateaux photographs" [MQWF++]. A single subject heading is attached: Castles-France.
6. Javitz to Arthur Schomburg, May 25, 1937, in Arthur A. Schomburg Papers, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. "We sent you by library messenger a package of photographs from the Resettlement Administration. These are not all you selected from their files because many of them were poor prints and ... were destroyed in Washington, which is either a sad commentary on their censorship or, perhaps just high standards, I don't know."
15. "Sometime ago, if you remember, I asked whether or not you would be willing to let one of my staff visit your room and make a little study of the very excellent filing system you have worked out. The time has now arrived when I should like to have the bearer of this note, Mr. John Vachon, impose on your generosity. Anything which you can do to aid Mr. Vachon will be appreciated by the Resettlement Administration." Stryker to Javitz, April 15, 1937, in Romana Javitz Papers.
18. The Prints and Photographs Division (formerly Fine Arts Division) of the Library of Congress was created in 1944 in a general reorganization of the library. John Young Cole, For Congress and the Nation: A Chronological History of the Library of Congress [through 1975] (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979), 117.
24. Jennings Wood, Assistant Chief, Exchange and Gift Division, Library of Congress, to Javitz, May 1, 1958, in Romana Javitz Papers. The content and subject matter of the copy prints and microfilm reels have not been identified.
25. Holdings from the Library of Congress exchange, and a group of photographs acquired by Javitz over her tenure at the Picture Collection, are how housed in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Center for the Humanities, The Research Libraries of The New York Public Library, as the Romana Javitz Collection.
Originally published in Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library
Volume 4, Number 1, Fall 1995. ©1995 Anthony T. Troncale.