The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 6
Oct 1990


Diane Vogt O'Connor. Guide to Photographic Collections at the Smithsonian Institution. Vol. 1: National Museum of American History. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. 351 pp. Paper. ISBN 0-87474-927-1. $29.95 + $2.25 postage and handling, from Smithsonian Institution Press, Dept. 900, Blue Ridge Summit, PA 17294, 717/794-2148.

Reviewed by Wilma "Billy" Plunkett
Photographic Archives Specialist, Brigham Young University.

A new ion has been added to the field of reference books. Everyone from the art connoisseur to the person who likes to look at pictures, from the scholar researching a given subject to the student needing a theme subject, from the expert in a chosen field of interest to the novice who is looking for something of interest, will find this guide fascinating. I have seen no other book like it.

The one-page Foreword whets the appetite. The seven page Introduction identifies this volume, the first of five, as a much needed, long-overdue presentation of the world of photographs and its documentation of human endeavors and nature's secrets. The Arts and Sciences; world events of historical and personal interest; human successes and failures; the probing and reporting of the universe in which we live-all these things are addressed. This first volume is not just an "inventory"; it is an invitation.

The Introduction specifies this volume deals primarily with still photographs with two basic division; the work of a specific photographer/studio; or a collection of pictures dealing with a specific subject. It draws upon the entire pictorial holdings of the National Museum of American History and has been subjected to extensive, comprehensive cross-referencing, both by people and computers.

A quick subject search is made possible by the organized listing; example PH-23 Photographic History, 23rd collection within that section. There are three separate indexes: Creator, Form and Processes; and Subject.

The Collection Level Descriptions, while complex, are very readable. They give the collections codes, as noted above, the name, photograph dates, collection sources, physical description, subjects, arrangement, and captions. In addition, finding aids are listed. The intensive and extensive work :Involved in preparing this volume makes it a mandatory reference book for the professional researcher and the beginner.

Restrictions, so many times a public-relations problem, are clearly defined. Example--For Reference Only. No Copying Allowed.

Public Access Rules start with a vital statement--Appointments are required for any collections not an public exhibition". Logical explanations for that rule are given, along with details of making appointments and hours open to the public.

I noted with interest that xerographic and photographic copies can be obtained ONLY after written permission is obtained from the appropriate division. Getting photocopies these days seem so simple and instantaneous, so taken for granted, that most of us overlook the ramifications of such a simple act. There are 34 lines of instructions regarding the procedures of determining negative numbers, making out photo order forms, and making advance payment. Normal processing time, after receiving the order and payment, is four weeks. Pre-approval of the order can be obtained by writing to the National Museum of Archives Center, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560, Attention the desired Division, such as: Community Life; Engineering and Industry; Physical Sciences. This would be the same address to use when requesting an appointment for in-person visits. Be sure to give details of specific interests and needs.

Photoarchivists will appreciate the information regarding the proper care and handling of photographs. One Of the major concerns is the general public's lack of awareness of the "do's and don'ts" of working with photos.

The one hundred photographs selected to illustrate some of the collections run the gamut of subject interest and greatly enhance the overall appeal of the volume. The work is presented with great eye appeal which creates further interest.

The eleven--page Table of Contents, covering over one million still photographs, is made extremely usefu1 to the professional and amateur alike by use of subject headings under which the 451 collections are listed, with the page numbers where the systematic descriptions of the collections are found. The Table of Contents even appeals to the "browser" and invites reading for pleasure. The and variety of subjects is bound to stimulate the interest of Most users beyond their original intent of checking on just one subject. Here are some of the 24 categories and 451 titles.

Agriculture and Natural Resources (4 entries), includes: John Hoffman Mineral Industries Collection; 1927 Mississippi Flood Photographs; John and Roma Rouse Collection of World Cattle.

Armed Forces History (19): Biographical Information Files; Military and War Poster Collection; A.H. Russell

World's Colombian Exposition Ordnance Exhibit; Ships Drawing and Plans; World War I Art.

City life (17): American Community Life Photographs; American Hand Tool Photographs; Community Life Entertainment Vertical File; Eleanor Dickinson Photographic Collection on the American Protestant Revival; Motion Picture Still Photograph Collection; Sweet Caporal Cigarette Card Photographs.

Costume (6): Costume Photographs; Fashion Plates Collection.

Domestic Life (9): American Domestic Interiors Pictorial Collection; Harry T. Peters' "America on Stone" Lithography Collection.

Engineering and Industry (154): Alaskan Railroad and Bridge Construction; Blanchard Gunstock Lathe Collection; Boston Elevated Photograph Album; Decorative Masonry Work; Delaware Aqueduct; Dredging; Richard Fisher Collection of Panama Canal Materials; "Loose the Mighty Power: Impressions of the Steam Engine in America"; Mills and Factories; World War II Bomb-Damage; and several other collections dealing with specific bridges, railroads, waterways and tunnels.

Note: Alphabetical jumps remind us there are four more volumes coming to cover such subjects as jurisprudence and literature.

Medical Sciences (20): American Soda Foundation Photographs; Department of Health of the City of New York; Eli Lilly and Company Collection; M*A*S*H Photographs; Smallpox Eradication Campaign Photographs.

Photography History (58): Mathew B. Brady; Card Photographs; Daguerreotypes; Glass Negatives; Lantern Slides; Paris Salon of Women Photographers, 1900; Photographic Patent Models; Photographic Techniques and Processes; Waterbury Collection of Union Miniature Cases.

Transportation (24): Automobile Photograph Album; E.B. Blakely photographic Collection of Early American Passenger and Racing Automobiles; Marine Transportation; Railroad and Firefighting Equipment Photographs; Dr. Walter Teskey Railroad and Locomotive Photographs.

National Philatelic Collections (9): Bureau of Engraving and Printing Certified Plate Proof Sheets; Postal History Photographs; Railway Mail Service Collection.

The Registrar (2): High Value Security Photographs.

Special Events (1): Special Events Photographs.

Researchers, writers, teachers, students and laymen will all appreciate having this book available. Hopefully, some teachers will make it a required reference book to make their students aware of the variety of photographs that ran serve as primary source material. It has been a long tire in coming but it is worth waiting for. It reminds me of my first visit to the Smithsonian many years ago--I could not settle for just one room.

If the next four volumes live up to the standards set by the first, the National of American History will have made a major contribution to the world of photographic documentation.

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