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Prints and Photographs Division

Scope of the Collections
Picture Processes: A Chronology
arrow graphicResearching Images
Exploring Contexts: Migrant Mother





Researching Images
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Washington Gas Light Co. Movie star, Ann Rutherford III. Theodor Horydczak. Between 1920 and 1950. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

All types of research involving the division's holdings, whether the ultimate object is to convey visual information or to interpret trends in representation, are facilitated by an understanding of, first, the source of the particular material being used and, second, the purpose for which it was originally intended. A picture showing a woman at a stove in order to advertise the virtues of the appliance, for instance, would naturally present an image of American women different from one made in the same era with the intention of documenting the limited spread of electricity to rural kitchens.

Images Elsewhere in the Library of Congress

Rich as the resources of the Prints and Photographs Division are for those researching images relating to women's history, it is important to keep in mind that the division is by no means the sole source of imagery in the Library of Congress.
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Kitchen of Ed Bagget, sharecropper. Laurel, Mississippi. 1939 Jan. Prints and Photographs Division.
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  • Books and periodicals in the General Collections and in other divisions in the Library, such as the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, are rife with illustrations, which can be studied on their own and in the context of the textual material with which they are presented.
  • Custodial divisions other than the Prints and Photographs Division also sometimes house collections of visual materials. For instance, the Manuscript Division sometimes retains photographs and other visual materials associated with the personal papers of an individual or the records of an organization, as does the Music Division. The American Folklife Center features a large body of photographs resulting from various field projects.

Preparing to Research Images

Not only are images found embedded in textual materials held elsewhere in the Library, but textual sources in other reading rooms frequently hold the key to making knowledgeable use of Prints and Photographs Division holdings. Researchers will have a better chance of locating images appropriate to their needs if they come armed with information about the images or image subjects:

  • names
  • dates
  • relevant geographic locations
  • other factual information

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Fredrycka Weaver, Rachel Paczkowski, and Katryna Lee Kritzer examining photographs at the Washington office of the Overseas Branch of the U.S. Office of War information. 1945. Prints and Photographs Division.
bibliographic record

Few of the division's catalogs or indexes systematically list images by the gender, ethnicity, or occupation of their makers or subjects. Someone seeking, for instance, images of nineteenth-century women journalists will need to look under the names of women known to have pursued that profession. A researcher interested in finding images of Mexican American women workers can mine the holdings more thoroughly by coming equipped with information about the regions and occupations in which Mexican American women worked at various points in time.

Research Realities

Even after using multiple search strategies, the researcher may find that she or he must still make informed guesses about the backgrounds and circumstances of women depicted in the collections. It is a truism that creators of visual images accent the visual. Information identifying images is frequently scarce, and written documentation that illuminates the motives and intentions of the image-maker is even rarer. As a consequence, you may need to consult textual materials held in other parts of the Library to aid in the identification and interpretation of images you find in the Prints and Photographs Division. Consulting such sources may also shed light on how the images were used to accompany the news, to advertise products and ideas, or to provide aesthetic pleasure.

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