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Event Review - Words on Pictures: a Panel Discussion on the NYPL Photo Collection and the Career of Romana Javitz

  • 1.  Event Review - Words on Pictures: a Panel Discussion on the NYPL Photo Collection and the Career of Romana Javitz

    Posted 03-27-2021 18:37

    Words on Pictures, March 23rd, event took place on Zoom

    This fascinating panel discussion, organized by the New York SLA Community, covered the history of the New York Public Library Picture Collection, the career of its early custodian Romana Javitz and her connection with Arturo Schomburg, how the collection is used today, and the role librarians can play in combatting the 'Googlisation' of the visual image.

    SLA member, Anthony Troncale, who has recently published his book, Words on Pictures; Romana Javitz and The New York Public Library's Picture Collection,  brought together a very interesting group of panelists.  Jessica Cline, New York Public Library Supervising Librarian, Mary Panzer, a curator and historian of photography and American culture and Dr Diana Kamin, a lecturer at Fordham University.

     Anthony began with an account of the history of the picture collection.   It began in 1914 as a collection of clippings from magazines set aside for scrap.  By 1916 public demand for visual images was so high that the formal picture collection was established.  The breadth and quality of the collection can be attributed to its early keeper, Romana Javitz.   She believed that any picture, however mundane, could have an important reuse.  By the 1950 the collection had over 6 million images.   Pictures were the social media of the time.  Before Google Images, if you needed a suitable photo for your book cover, magazine article, or film poster, the New York Public Library Picture Collection was the place to go.  The classification of the collection was based on user requests.   Anthony shared some images of picture collection 'slips', the cards used to request images, often drawn to overcome any language barriers.   Drawn requests included a nude, an elephant, and Queen Victoria of England.  The collection provides a fascinating history of the United States, Anthony shared photos dating back to the 1930s of two farm workers displaying their beautiful hand crafted quilts.   Romana Javitz went on to form the SLA Picture Division in 1953.

     Jessica Cline told us about today's NYPL picture collection.  It contains 1.5 million pictures, not all are digitized.  Costume and NYC daily life are two of the most popularly requested subjects.   The most recently added topic is, not surprisingly,

    COVID-19.   During the pandemic access to the collection has been via virtual consultations.  Up to 60 pictures can be borrowed at one time.  Countless artists, have been influenced by images found in the collection.   Art Spiegelman's illustrations in his graphic novel Maus,  were influenced by images he found of Beatrix Potter's drawings.  To view some of the highlights from the collection check the Instagram account, NYPL Picture Collection.

     Mary Panzer discussed the collaboration between Romana Javitz and Arturo Schomburg to collect images of the daily lives of African Americans.   They both recognized that pictures could document a culture which was not being recorded in other ways.     The NYPL purchased the collection amassed by Schomburg, in 1926, although he remained its curator.  Schomburg and Javitz went on to collect on number of images taken by documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange.  Lange took many photographs of African Americans in her pursuit to document American life during the 1930s.  However the lives of  African Americans were not considered to be part of American culture, and she was discouraged from taking photographs of black people whose images would be hard to use in the media.  Mary showed examples of photographs which had been hole punched to make them unusable.   Fortunately Javitz did not discriminate and Mary was able to share with us a series of photos showing the lives of  African Americans harvesting strawberries in Louisiana.

    Dr Diana Kamin discussed how large tech companies such as Google and Facebook have become the custodians of images today.   Private organizations are now the defacto organizers of the world's knowledge.   Increasingly our view of the world is being served to us by the images Google's algorithms  provide us.   She encouraged librarians to follow in the steps of Romana Javitz to view pictures as documents and to take on the role of making any number of pictures available and also to work against the printed word being the principle media available in libraries.

    The event ended appropriately with a recording of Romana Javitz herself. 

    Thank you to all four speakers for a very interesting discussion. 

    You can watch the complete session on YouTube from this link

    Victoria North
    SLA New York Chapter
    New York Tel: 212 909 3143