Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation

The Google Challenge: Google Images versus The Picture Collection


(with apologies, in advance, to the amazing Chris Raschka.)

"Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one." —Neil Gaiman

In September 2015 the Picture Collection, which is located on the third floor of the Mid-Manhattan Branch of The New York Public Library, will celebrate its centennial.

The Picture Collection's origins were closely tied to immigration into New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. Advances in printing and publishing at the time, combined with the population explosion, created an increase in demand from the advertising markets. The need for a specialized collection of images arranged by subject heading quickly became evident and artists and designers requiring specific visual resources turned to the Library for help. The circulation department began collecting images and on September 13, 1915 the Collection opened to the public. Today, almost one hundred years later, professional artists and designers, students, and researchers continue to be inspired by the Picture Collection.

The Picture Collection hosts class visits on a regular basis and the students, from high school to post graduate level, see first hand the wonders of the Library’s deep and influential collection.

Joseph Cornell was a frequent user and even exhibited his boxes at the New York Public Library. I like to imagine him browsing through pictures of birds and ballerinas.

Diego Rivera used the Collection in late 1933 when working on murals in New York City, bringing Library materials in direct contact with the created design.

Andy Warhol checked out images from the subject heading “Advertising – Soft Drinks” and one can only wonder how those materials influenced the course of art history. Incidentally, Warhol did not return all of the Picture Collection materials, but we forgive him.

Art Spiegelman drew a wonderful and informative piece on the Picture Collection in the February 20, 1995 issue of The New Yorker.

Walker Evans was very interested in “anonymous art” and an avid collector of postcards so he was at home in the Collection. Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine were also supporters of the Picture Collection.

Taryn Simon recently took a very unique approach to using the Picture Collection by photographically documenting the materials in approximately 40 different subject headings. Some of the subjects included "Handshaking," “Waiting,” "Beards & Mustaches," and "Sunlight." Her photographs highlight the specialized curatorial nature of the Picture Collection. You can see this work in the October 2012 issue of Wallpaper. The subject heading on the cover: "Rear Views."

In this born digital age, when Google provides millions of images in the blink of an eye, the Picture Collection continues to inspire Library users to create.

As a librarian I use Google daily. It's a tool to aid in and enhance the delivery of information and services to my patrons. For the basics it is quick and easy. But it's only a tool. And my toolbox is big.

Google employee number one and former Director of Technology Craig Silverstein made librarians smile a few years ago when he said that it was his guess that it would be "about 300 years" until computers were "as good as, say, your local reference library in doing search."

I was reminded of this quote recently when illustrator Chris Raschka mentioned the Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech this past summer for his amazing wordless picture book A Ball for Daisy. He said:

"Exploring the idea of memory in my own picture book illustration improved enormously the day I threw out my morgue. What's a morgue? A morgue is a collection of images — everything and anything. A morgue is — this is something you used to learn as an illustrator — something that you must have and must constantly update. For me, when I began twenty-three years ago, it was newspaper and magazine clippings of everyday objects, or settings, or situations; like men shaking hands, or small dogs, or mountains, or goldfish, etc... — in short, a picture reference file. The New York Public Library has an enormous one. Nowadays you don't need any of this, of course; you just Google it. We are no longer in the Stone Age."

Admittedly I am taking this quote out of context from the entire speech, in which Raschka described the importance of memory and his growth as an artist. Regardless, reading this still put me on the defensive.

Google is a tool in this digital age. As a creative individual do you really want to limit yourself or the tools in your toolbox?

When the escalator was invented it did not make stairs obsolete. This electronic means of getting from point A to point B is convenient but it in no way replaces the overall need for stairs. Escalators are just more appropriate for certain situations. Convenience certainly has its benefits, but if you were to only travel by escalator you would limit the amount of the world you could see.

The Picture Collection contains well over one million images divided into over 12,000 different subject headings. These images are all copyright protected so you won't find them online via Google. Skilled New York Public Library librarians carefully choose the book and magazine clippings and photographs that get added to the collection, selecting images that perfectly depict or represent the subject, so unlike using Google your search won't be marred with amateurish clip art or unrelated results based on your keywords.

Museum and library special collections are unfortunately sometimes still viewed as cold and dark places. Like a morgue. In this stereotypical light how can anything not seem outdated and antiquated? Google is often perceived as a bearer of light to this cold and dark world. Lucifer was also a bearer of light but I'll skip that comparison. Google is a good starting point for the basics but there is so much that is not available online.

The Picture Collection provides quality and expertise. The Picture Collection fosters the serendipity that occurs when browsing large quantities of materials. The Picture Collection allows you to select and hold images in your hand, comparing them with others while your ideas start to form, expand, and take shape.

We also have some amazing images.

Again, I took the "Nowadays you don't need any of this" and the "We are no longer in the Stone Age" comments out of context from Raschka's entire speech but I contend that special collections such as the Picture Collection are needed nowadays more than ever. We provide an invaluable and unique service to creative individuals, from students to professionals. Libraries and librarians provide what Google does not. We provide what they cannot.

Craig Silverstein was right. They are still 300 years behind libraries, putting them closer to the Stone Age than us. Actually, for the sake of accuracy, 300 years behind would put them somewhere in the Age of Enlightenment.

And now let me enlighten you.

I present the Google Challenge: Google Images versus The Picture Collection.

Below are the four image subjects mentioned by Chris Raschka in his Caldecott acceptance speech, with comparative details for each subject as they relate to Google image search and the Picture Collection. These details include the number of images available through Google and the Picture Collection and a detailed description of the results. The availability of circulating materials in the Picture Collection varies, as does the search results for Google, so the number listed is the amount that was available at the time. If there were 50 images available in the Picture Collection then I considered only the first 50 images that Google provided, which I think is fair because the further down you get in a Google search the less relevant the results. I also included any related search suggestions offered by Google and any additional related subject headings the Picture Collection librarians might suggest. Lastly, in a nod towards Google's "I'm feeling lucky" feature for each subject I compare the first image result from Google with an image picked at random from the Picture Collection.

Let us begin.

Men Shaking Hands

Picture Collection: There are 48 images available under the subject heading "Handshaking." There are also 121 images in the Digital Gallery under the keywords "shaking hands." Related search suggestions: Hands, Holding Hands

Description: A variety of photographic clippings from books and magazines, illustrations, and press photographs, including detailed close-ups and a variety of different handshake styles: firm, political, social, groups of fours.

Google: There are 4.1 million images under the keywords "Men Shaking Hands." Related search suggestions offered by Google: "two men shaking hands," "cartoon men shaking hands," and "black men shaking hands."

Description: Approximately half of the results were clip art illustrations, and the majority of those were very stylized and cartoonish. The other half were stock-photo style photographs: 13 photos showed close-ups of the hands, 5 showed silhouettes of men shaking hands, 5 photos were worm's eye views and other interesting angles, 5 depicted women shaking hands with men.

Google's "I'm feeling lucky" test:

First Google image: 687x508 pixel, clear stock photo of two men in suits shaking hands firmly.

Random Picture Collection image: 8x10" United Nations press photo from 1968 of General Alfredo Stroessner, President of Paraguay, shaking hands with Secretary General U Thant.

Verdict: The Picture Collection wins on variety of photographic images of men shaking hands. Half of Google's search results were cartoon depictions of people shaking hands, so Google wins for clipart of handshaking.

Small Dogs

Picture Collection: There are over 70 different subheadings for Dogs in the Picture Collection. The subheadings are for specific breeds but also include subjects like "Dogs-Hunting" and "Dogs-Transportation." There is a folder for "Dogs-Puppy" which contains 160 images and small breeds such as Lhasa Apso (22 images), Pekingese (32 images), and Chihuahua (31 images) have their own folders. There are also 2,626 images of dogs in the Digital Gallery. Related search suggestions: "Dogs-Action," "Dogs-Leashed," "Dog shows," and "Pets," in addition to suggesting various specific small breeds.

Description: The majority are large color images clipped from books and magazines. A large variety of breeds are depicted. There are also a few black and white photos and some illustrations.

Google: There are 517 million images under the keywords "small dogs." Related search suggestions offered by Google: "small dogs that stay small," "small dogs for sale," "small dog breeds."

Description: All color images, with 3 illustrations. The vast majority are small breed dogs

Google's "I'm feeling lucky" test:

First Google image: 500 x 348 pixel image from a "Modern Etiquette: Regarding Neighboring Yippy Dogs" online article. It shows a small and airborne and presumably yippy dog running through the snow.

Random Picture Collection image: One 8.5 x 11" page with 5 different color photos of 5 different breeds of small puppies.

Verdict: A very close call. Google for the most part provided relevant and usable images. Most were small dog breeds as opposed to puppies. The Picture Collection images are organized by subject so images of "small dogs" would be located in many different folders. Google gets points for ease. The Picture Collection gets points for variety.


Picture Collection: There are 135 images under the subject heading "Mountains." There are also over 40 geographic subheading folders for mountains, such as " Italy - Mountains," "Colorado - Mountains," and " United States - Mountains - 1899 and earlier." There are 5,623 images in the Digital Gallery under the keyword "mountains." Related search suggestions: "Mountaineering," in addition to various geographic subheadings.

Description: There is a large variety: color and black and white book and magazine clippings and photographs, prints and illustrations. There are numerous aerial views, rocky and snow covered peaks, and detailed close-ups.

Google: There are 511 million images under the keyword "Mountains." Related search suggestions offered by Google: "Colorado Mountains," "Rocky Mountains," "Mountains wallpaper"

Description: There is not much variety at all. Most of the images are stereotypical: classic, iconic, snow-capped, and majestic. About half of the images feature a body of water at the mountain base or in the foreground. Most look like screensavers with over-saturated colors. There were a few "fantasy" and "sci-fi" mountainscapes shown. There are 2 aerial photographs.

Google's "I'm feeling lucky" test:

First Google image: 1,352 x 2,048 pixel image of the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps symmetrically reflected in the foreground lake.

Random Picture Collection image: 6.5 x 10" clipping from a book: 1921 black and white photograph of Mt Everest by A.F.R. Wollaston.

Verdict: No contest. The Picture Collection takes this one on variety. Google provided some very nice images but little diversity.


Picture Collection: There are 77 images under the subject heading "Fish - Goldfish." There are also 18 images in the Digital Gallery under the keyword "goldfish." Related search suggestions: "Fish - Tropical," "Aquariums"

Description: The majority of the images are color photographs clipped from books. 16 of the images are illustrations such as Japanese prints and vintage colored prints from the 1930s. 6 of the images are photographs of vases and pottery that depict goldfish.

Google: There are 25.4 million images under the keyword "goldfish." Related search term suggestions from Google include "funny goldfish," "cute goldfish," and "goldfish crackers"

Description: The majority of the images are color stock photos. About a dozen are photos of very exotic and bulbous varieties of goldfish that stray from the typical shapes and colors of goldfish. 6 of the images are illustrations. One is a Photoshop mashup of a goldfish with Anthony Hopkins face.

Google's "I'm feeling lucky" test:

First Google image: 784 x 840 pixel color image of goldfish in an aquarium. The background, the two other fish, the bubbles, and the reflections in the glass make for a distracting photo.

Random Picture Collection image: 6x8.5" color photo of a classic goldfish against a blue background.

Verdict: The Picture Collection provided solid diversity and quality images. Google's diversity consisted of extreme examples, with numerous blurry and unclear photos.


Google can bring you back one million images, the Picture Collection can bring you back the right one.

I'll be the first to admit that there are obvious benefits to finding images through Google. Let's face it: goldfish are goldfish, mountains are mountains, and the act of shaking hands only has so many visual varieties. But if you want quality and variety, or if you need an image of something very specific in regards to a particular subject, year, or geographic region then your Google search might not be as fruitful. Quick and easy access is a given with the Internet and despite the frequent problems with quality and the overall amount of generic stock photos and clip art the sheer number of images available through Google can certainly help users with basic visual references, creative blocks, or deadlines. Google provides quantity. But I'll take quality over quantity any day of the week. I believe it is clear: the quality and specific variety of the Picture Collection images materials, resources, and services far exceed that of Google Images.

But don't take my word for it. Take the Google challenge! Stop by the Picture Collection and decide for yourself.


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

an empirical demonstration of

an empirical demonstration of intelligence. please, never stop this amazing work.

Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading!

Great Post!

More isn't always better.


I agree: Quality over quantity.

History of Picture Collection

For more info about the History of the Picture Collection: Worth Beyond Words: Romana Javitz and The New York Public Library's Picture Collection Not sure why the Blogger did not source this....

Post new comment