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The sheer vastness and variety of Prints and Photographs Division holdings, which comprise an estimated 16 million items, make the division a rich resource for researchers in women's history.
Collection materials relating to women in American history date from before the American Revolution to the present day. Because photographs make up the bulk of the collections, the holdings are strongest for the period between 1860 and 1970.
Although some of the division's collections are strong in coverage of the American West, women do not figure prominently in them. Coverage of women tends to be stronger for the eastern states, to the extent that the geographic location is apparent in the pictorial materials at all. Among the exceptions, where women in the American West do appear are:
The collections encompass the kinds of pictorial materials routinely found in historical societies, government archives, and art museums. Unlike many of these institutions, however, the Prints & Photographs Division stands out for its mammoth holdings of visual materials originally created for commercial purposes, including images intended for sale directly to the public or those designed for use in publications or advertising.
The Library's relationship to the Copyright Office has contributed greatly to this strength. Starting in the 1870s, artists and publishers who wished to protect their rights in a pictorial work deposited copies of it in the U.S. Copyright Office. By no means did all of the deposited images enter the Library's collections, but hundreds of thousands of visual items were retained and are now part of the division's holdings. The variety of images acquired in this way include the following:
The Prints and Photographs Division has also, over the years, accumulated a wealth of graphic images created for use in magazines, books, and newspapers (see the section on Graphic Journalism and Illustration), as well as vast collections of photographs assembled by news photo agencies and by publication companies (see the section on Photojournalism Collections).
Although images designed for commercial or publication purposes are a particular strength of the collections, pictures of many types and depicting many subjects can be found in the division's holdings, acquired from a great variety of sources.