Digging the Digital Collections

September 28, 2012 · Print This Article

In the past I’ve written about film archives, Google Books, and online galleries. These digital resources are not just entertaining and educational, but they are invaluable tools for contemporary artists. Today, I’d like to share with you three library digital databases that are free and open to anyone. All three of these databases are black holes of time-suckage, so consider yourself forewarned.

Duke University has an impressive digital archive, by any standard. But one of their standout collections is an archive of the work of photographer William Gedney. With more than 5,000 items, you could spend all afternoon in this collection alone. There’s a fantastic pictorial of the 1978 Gay Pride March commemorating the tenth anniversary of Stonewall. Also impressive, though completely unrelated, is Duke’s collection of vintage advertisements called AdViews. Here you will find commercials for your favorite products from the 1950s through the 1980s. Michelob. NyQuill. American Express. Old Spice. Always Maxi-Pads. It’s all there.

The New York Public Library has amassed a stunning array of digital documents and pictures. There are dozens of collections, many you might expect, like photographs of Brooklyn, the Richard Rogers collection, New York Women’s Suffrage. But there are also some surprises that are unbelievably cool, Yiddish Theater Placards, Vintage Holiday Postcards, and the unfreaking believable collection of restaurant menus from 1850s through 1930s. There’s some menus from old time Chicago restaurants as well. In 1854 at the Lake House Restaurant on “the corner of Michigan and Kinzie,” you can get a glass of claret for .75 cents. Not bad.

Perhaps best known for its role in National Treasure 2, the Library of Congress belongs to all of us. It’s America’s library, that’s why the president hides all his secrets there. And you know what is also hidden there? All sorts of national treasures. There’s National Jukebox, a historic collection recordings from the Victor Company between 1920-1925, all of these transferred from 78rpm. There are vintage newspapers, lots of stuff about the legislature, a performing arts digital encyclopedia, and “over one million digital photographs.” Now you can’t beat that.

Check out these excellent resources. They’re fun and they’re free, and in the case of the Library of Congress, paid for with your tax dollar.




By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943

March 29, 2010 · Print This Article

I love sifting through online image archives, especially those of a historical nature. I’ve been going through the Library of Congress’ collection of posters from the Works Progress Administration and thought I’d share a few of the ones that caught my eye for one reason or another. The collection consists of 908  posters produced during the period 1936 to 1943 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Of the 2,000 WPA posters known to exist, the Library of Congress’s collection is the largest. They include silkscreens, lithographs, and woodcut posters designed to promote health and safety programs, cultural programs and art exhibitions, travel and tourism, educational programs, and community activities.  Click on the image to be taken to its LOC link.

Chicago will control syphilis : You may have your blood test free and confidentially at one of the following stations : Chicago Board of Health, Herman N. Bundesen, Pres. Federal Art Project, WPA (1938).

Girls - are you interested in a job? : Find out what an occupation has to offer you in pay, employment, security, and promotion : Free classes in occupations. Poster for Illinois branch of the National Youth Administration, 1937.

Poster for Illinois State Employment Service promoting jobs for women as domestics.

Poster for the Brookfield Zoo, showing hippopotamuses superimposed over outline of Africa. 1938.

Don't Mix 'Em. 1937. Robert Lachenmann, artist.

Art week, Nov. 25 - Dec. 1, 1940 : Buy American art.New York : New York City W.P.A. Art Project, 1940.

National Letter Writing Week: Oct. 1-7. Chicago : Illinois WPA Art Project, 1940.

International exhibition of water colors : The Art Institute of Chicago - March 23 - May 14 1939.

NYC WPA War Services, 1941-1943. Herbert Bayer, artist.




Stills from a “Lost” Chicago Movie

August 10, 2009 · Print This Article

I’ve been having one of those Alice in Wonderland-type afternoons on the Internet  where you happen upon something that fascinates you and whooosh! down you tumble, lost to the rest of the world for hours. Where did I fall? Into the Library of Congress’ Flickr photostream, which boasts a particularly compelling trove of color images from the 1930s and 1940s. I was looking for images from Chicago from that period, and as I started sifting through the search results I was struck by how incredibly cinematic some of them they are.  I even began to construct an imaginary narrative by pulling certain images out of the stream and mentally rearranging them like film stills from a lost movie about the Chicago trainyards in the 1940s. Kinda like this…

The cast of characters:

Roy Nelin, box packer in the Round House at the Proviso Yard

Roy Nelin, box packer in the roundhouse at the Proviso Yard

L. Logan, boilermaker at the roundhouse at the Proviso Yard

L. Logan, boilermaker at the roundhouse at the Proviso Yard

James Lynch, a roundhouse worker, Proviso Yard

James Lynch, a roundhouse worker, Proviso Yard

The main sets:

Locomotives in the roundhouse at Proviso yard, Chicago

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Wonder what this guy is up to?:

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There’s definitely a steampunk vibe to my imaginary film, but you can fill in your own narrative blanks. (Click on each image to be taken directly to its respective Library of Congress flickr page, where you can get the real historical details on each image.) All of the above photographs were taken by the amazing Jack Delano for the Farm Security Administration, established by FDR to aid small farmers and restore damaged land and communities ravaged by the Depression. Delano, in particular, is known for his compositionally striking photographs documenting the country’s train system.

Visit the Library of Congress’ Flickr stream to see many more incredible historical images from this period, many of which, like the above examples, are in vibrant color.