Skip to Main Content

American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections

Researching Images

Fredrycka Weaver, Rachel Paczkowzki, and Katryna Lee Kritzer examining photographs at the Washington office of the Overseas Branch of the U.S. Office of War information. 1945. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Research with historical images, as with other types of historical materials, is a painstaking process that involves building on background knowledge of a topic, as well as steady applications of intuition, in order to uncover what are often scattered sources of evidence. The evidence must then be sifted and weighed in light of:

  • what is known about the makers and the subjects of the images
  • the technical processes used to produce them
  • the purpose for which the given image or set of images was intended.

Researchers will need to exercise both searching and interpretation skills in attempting to illuminate aspects of women's history through the visual evidence. In their vastness and variety as well as in their sometimes intricate interconnections with other types of material the Library of Congress holds, the Library's visual collections offer both challenge and enticement to researchers. The wealth of pictorial evidence stands to enrich our understanding of the role the country's rapidly expanding image production played both in representing American women and in serving as sources of livelihood and creative expression for American women.

Understanding Sources of Images and Their Intended Purposes

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 in a kitchen in order to advertise the virtues of an appliance or to instruct about cooking tasks, for instance, would naturally present an image of American women different from one made with the intention of documenting the limited spread of electricity to rural kitchens.

L. Prang & Co. Prang's aids for object teaching—The kitchen. Copyrighted 1874. Popular Graphic Arts. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
Russell Lee, photographer. Kitchen of Ed Bagget, sharecropper. Laurel, Mississippi. 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Finding Images Elsewhere in the Library of Congress

Rich as the resources of the Prints & 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.

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 & 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 & 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

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 & 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.

For Further Information