For decades, the New York Public Library’s fabled Picture Collection, located in the institution’s vaulted main branch on 42nd Street in Manhattan, was Mecca for designers and illustrators seeking the perfect piece of scrap for a layout or illustration. On any given weekday in the 1970s or ‘80s the likes of Ed Sorel, Seymour Chwast, or Paul Rand could be rifling through the countless rows of file folders containing sheaths of brittle oak-tag boards onto which magazine and newspaper clippings, vintage engravings, postcards, and various tattered slivers of fragile paper were mounted. From its opening in 1914, thousands of people from ad agencies to art studios made regular use of this incredible resource. And what a bargain it was too, as the NYPL loaned its riches for two weeks at a time for free to anyone holding a valid library card.
Today the Picture Collection remains open at the Mid-Manhattan branch nearby on 40th Street—and it’s still easy to find images of anything from abacus to zodiac—but the ravages of sustained use are apparent, and their eventual disintegration is inevitable. Fortunately, the library’s vast citywide collection of prints, maps, posters, dust jackets, sheet music, menus, and cigarette cards (the latter of which, interestingly, comprises 10% of the entire collection) is now available to the public online at the NYPL Digital Gallery. For designers who had already migrated to other online sources anyway, this wellspring of cataloged riches may become one-shop sourcing for rare, unusual, and exotic references.
I recently went on a search for Yiddish Theater posters to find a great uncle who purportedly was a Yiddish Theater star attraction. I came up empty on the specific search, but found a cache of New York and Argentinian posters, some I recall seeing around my grandfather’s apartment. Oh how I love those split fountains. (The Center for Jewish History also has a rich collection.)
Whether one is searching for a specific image to meet a deadline or merely browsing for pleasure, this new Web site peppered with unexpected treasures. Since I delight in arcane visual ephemera for fun and profit, when PRINT asked me to review the site I decided to spend three hours every day for one week dipping into—nay, bathing myself in—as many of the categories as the Digital Gallery offers. While attempting to systematically review the seven categorical groupings (Art & Literature, Cities & Buildings, Culture & Society, History & Geography, Industry & Technology, Nature & Science, Printing & Graphics), I was often sidetracked by other areas that caught my fancy. Navigating the site is not always time-efficient because it’s easy to get caught in a thematic cul-de-sac. Viewing digitally scanned material online is rarely as pleasurable as pawing (and smelling) the actual artifacts – there is no substitute for tactility. But clean and fast click-of-the-mouse access to such incredibly rare material is unprecedented.