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.