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Design by the Book

The Great Difficulty in Assigning a Subject Heading is to Get the Pleased Expression


When choosing where to place an image among our 12,000 or so subject headings in the Picture Collection, we often feel like the painter in this comic from 1919. We have to entertain the many different themes of the picture to find its best fit.

Comic strip called “The Great Difficulty in Child Portraiture is to get the Pleased Expression.”
“The Great Difficulty in Child Portraiture is to get the Pleased Expression.” Source: Picture Collection, Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, NYPL

This Punch Magazine  comic was drawn by George Stampa, a regular Punch contributor who often chose children and animals as his subjects. As you can see from the handwriting on the border, this image is located in our "Artists" subject file here at NYPL. But, it could have also been placed under a variety of other subject headings: "Children-Cartoons", "Paintings-Process", "Cartoons (subdivided by century or artist)", or "Portraits-Drawings and Prints".

This image of Mrs. Rabbit and her children being painted by a centipede is from the September 14, 1911 issue of the satirical humor magazine Life. It has similar themes to Stampa's comic, but is located in our "Animals - Rabbit" file.

Mrs. Rabbit
Source: NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 823447

But, Mrs. Rabbit could also have been filed under "Artists, Cartoons (subdivided by century or artist)", "Painting-Process", or "Animals as Human". In our physical location, unless we have two copies of an image, we can only choose one subject category in which to file a picture. However, within the Library’s Digital Collection, a picture can be tagged with many different subjects. For example, this one has been assigned topics of "Painting", "Rabbits", "Animals in Human Situations", and "Centipedes".

The Extinct Animals
"The Extinct Animals." Illustrated London News, December 21, 1853. Source: Picture Collection, Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, NYPL

And, while you may think a picture of a dinosaur would be an easy image for which to choose a subject, we don’t even have a file called Dinosaurs. That subject would be "Extinct Fauna - Reptiles" to us. But, of course, this picture could also be placed within the subjects of "Models", "Monsters", or "London-Crystal Palace", where these dinosaur models were on exhibit.

When we don't have the luxury of the Digital Collection, how do we choose just one subject heading for an image? We weigh several factors including the dominant feature of an image, the popularity of a theme included in the picture, how many items we have in a certain subject compared to another, patron requests for more pictures of a certain subject, and whether we have more than one copy of the image.

While the subject headings give an overview of the richness of the collection, the subject terms assigned to pictures are often different from what you would expect. If you have any questions or need assistance, please consult the staff in the Picture Collection, who are always happy to help you locate files with pictures on the topic of your choice.



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