100 Years of the Picture Collection: From Abacus to Zoology



of an Exhibit

by Charissa Ruth

Published on December 31, 2015 , Modified on December 31, 2015

  • Description:

    The Picture Collection at the New York Public Library is the original search engine for images. Remember the times when we relied heavily on other people to help us find what we were looking for? Librarians held all that knowledge in their heads way before Google dared show its face and revolutionize the way we interact with information.

    The NYPL keeps a large image collection organized alphabetically based on subject heading. With such an amazing collection of images, how could the library showcase this without the traditional gallery format? In many inventive ways actually: an edgy layout, a narrative of the collection’s history, and interactive hands-on components that allow proximity without damage.

    The aesthetics of this exhibit were definitely working to dispel the myth that libraries are old and stuffy and just full of old books (gasp!). The opening image of the exhibit is a big “A”, black, shiny, and a covered in a fun image-laden introductory text panel. The dark color scheme for the background of the exhibit further helps highlight the artifacts and images. The layout lent it itself to random roaming or a more linear progression going clockwise.

    The exhibit shows personal items such as letters and staff documents to tell the history and evolution of the picture collection. In turns out many famous artists and designers have used the Picture Collection such as Diego Rivera and Art Speigelman among many others. To further illustrate the history and process of the Picture Collection is a video demonstrating where the images come from, how they’re sorted, and how library patrons can use the collection.

    Interactive components of the exhibit beyond historical artifacts and images from the collection itself were videos, a hands-on flipbook of costumes, and a costume from a Broadway musical. There are also two corners of the exhibit that showcase just how extensive images are under certain headings. The images were displayed in a vertical sturdy book so that the “pages” could be moved back and forth like how many art museums display art posters in gift shops.

    After being romanced by the graphics, the objects, and the interactives, I really didn’t think it could get any better. But it did. There were free postcards. On the back of the matching ‘Z” at the back of the exhibit to the “A” at the beginning of the exhibit were slots holding postcards printed with a variety of images from the collection for visitors to take with them.

    This exhibit really showcases just one way libraries and their collections are relevant today. Through the preservation of these images, the birth and creation of new images would continue.

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