At the Library of Congress, a photographic trove of random beauty – The Washington Post

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I forage regularly through the online images in the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs Division, and sometimes I come across a picture — construction equipment at the U.S. Treasury building, tennis players on a bridge, a poster advertising catsup — categorized with the evocative label “Miscellaneous Items in High Demand.” That sounds like one of the world’s most interesting collections of miscellany; I wondered how it worked.
So I went to the Prints & Photographs Division reading room in the library’s Madison Building, where rows of wide maroon file cabinets hold troves of material. A corkboard wall displayed book covers that feature photographs from the library, on topics as varied as baseball and architect Eero Saarinen. The division holds more than 16 million images (on- and off-site) of just about anything conceivable: courtroom sketches and comic drawings along with lithographs, fine prints, Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph, and a daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln. About 1.6 million are digitized.
As it turns out, Miscellaneous Items in High Demand is not actually a collection, at least not in the way I’d imagined (i.e., a sturdy box, with a happily messy stack of photos offering hours of vintage-record-store-style serendipity). Instead, it’s an online grouping made up of more than 130,000 images. The items sorted into this category lacked a spot in another specific collection. They were requested and pulled for use in a book, for example, or an exhibition — hence the “high demand.”
Researchers access the Prints & Photographs Division for many reasons, division reference librarian Hanna Soltys told me, including schoolwork or publishing, or because they want to print and hang a favorite picture. Seated at a computer, Soltys pulled up a grid layout of images. “The beauty of Miscellaneous Items in High Demand is really kind of this, I think,” she said, “being able to click the ‘View All.’ … You scroll through and there’s no rhyme or reason why images are appearing in here. It’s solely because it appeared somewhere, or somebody bought a copy of it, or it was used in an exhibition and so it’s appearing in this bucket.”
“I’m usually looking for something specific and then one of the hits might come from that category,” professional researcher Athena Angelos says. She owns (and is) Pictorial Research Services of Washington, D.C. “Say you were doing something about George Washington — you find there’s some image of an illustration of him chopping down the cherry tree and that’s from Miscellaneous High Demand.” From a specific image page, she might move on to browse others as well. “It branches out,” she says.
Images that a user might be seeking are often also available in the library’s more frequently updated Free to Use and Reuse Sets. (Topics include ice cream, natural disasters, fish and fishing, motion picture theaters and hats.) To maximize results, people can search across all collections. For example, my recent search for “circus horse” turned up 62 results in Miscellaneous Items in High Demand. But a search of the entire online catalogue revealed 168 results, and if you try “circus posters,” which often include horses, you will get 584 hits. In the reading room, Soltys had laid out a few of the images from that expanded search: a circa 1909 photograph of an “educated horse” looking at a blackboard, and one of a performer and her sturdy dapple gray. Others included a photograph of a Barnum & Bailey representative at a horse auction, and a stereograph of Piccadilly Circus in London, in which a horse-drawn carriage advertises an animal feed called Molassine Meal.
Similar discoveries can occur when searching inside the reading room, where some original items are stored. Soltys tugged on a file-cabinet drawer that glided open with a satisfying whoosh, and expertly cruised through photographs stored in protective sleeves. Separators bore labels: carnivals, motor parks, livestock shows.
To sift through the drawers, Soltys says, “you don’t have to come in and tell us what you’re doing; you don’t have to get permission to come in.” Anyone with a reader registration card may have a look. But if you need something specific, Soltys advises, make contact ahead of time, in case, for example, the material you seek is stored off-site or is too fragile to handle.
Angelos emphasized that because of their specialized knowledge, the librarians in the Prints & Photographs Division are key resources. So did Mike Constandy, owner of Westmoreland Research — whom I also asked about any cool discoveries he had made. “From a researcher standpoint, ‘cool’ is actually finding what you’re looking for,” he said.
That practicality may not be a selling point of browsing Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, but, as Soltys said in a later email, the collection has its place: “In essence, the ‘Miscellaneous Items in High Demand’ bucket is a way to keep items from floating around in the catalogue on their own.” For me, it’s a collection that invites a certain restrained chaos into your research projects. Here is an etched illustration of Ursa Major, dating from 1825. Here are Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo Marx. Two girls stand on a beach in 1897, holding up their left feet. You don’t have to know exactly what you’re looking for. You just have to stay open to what you might find. The demand is high, even if it’s only your own.
Eliza McGraw is a writer in Washington.


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