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American Women: Resources from the Prints & Photographs Collections

Using the Collections

Over the course of the century in which the Prints & Photographs Division has existed, a variety of methods have been developed to provide access to its diverse holdings.

Photograph of Jeannette Poirier looking at photographs in file cabinet drawer at the Washington office of the Overseas Branch of the U.S. Office of War information
Jeannette Poirier looking at photographs in file cabinet drawer 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.

Reading Room Files

Among the oldest—and still used—forms of access to the collections is through file cabinets containing a mixture of original and copy images that provide direct access to materials. Reading room files that may prove most useful for women's history topics are listed here:

  • Biographical File: Pictures of people, especially posed portraits, as well as their families, homes, and activities, arranged by name
  • Specific Subjects File: Photographs of objects, events, activities, and structures, arranged by topical headings. Images relating to women and girls can be found under such varied headings as “Women—Politics and suffrage,” “Sports—Rowing,” “Children—Playing adults” and “Cowgirls”
  • Graphics File: Non-photographic images, including prints and reproductions of drawings and paintings, arranged by topic groups, such as “Women's movements” or “Daily life,” arranged in numbered groups (LOTs). The file contains some original visual materials as well as copies of images held elsewhere in P&P or in the Library, providing subject access to images that may otherwise lack it.

Catalogs, Indexes, and Finding Aids

Three women work at the card index files at the headquarters of the National Woman's Party in Washington, D.C. ca. 1920. National Photo Company Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Materials that cannot be accessed directly in reading room files are kept in storage areas and can be located by consulting catalogs, indexes, and finding aids. Some images are described in groups, based on their related provenance, subject matter, or format; other images are cataloged individually. Major tools include the following (for links to the online tools, see the "For Further Information" section of this page):

Online Catalogs

  • Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC): Approximately 95% of the division's collections can be found through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC), which provides access to descriptions of groups of materials and single items, sometimes with linked digitized images. You can access PPOC remotely, although some images will display only as “thumbnails” (small reference images) to those searching offsite because of rights considerations. A filtering capability enables users to focus on images that will display larger when searching from anywhere, or alternatively to focus on those only displaying larger within Library of Congress buildings or images not digitized at all. Depending on your location when conducting your research, this can help you make effective use of your time. PPOC also includes the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials, which provides information on standardized terminology used to index the descriptions in the catalog and provides suggested related terms that can help in expanding or narrowing a search.
  • Library of Congress Online Catalog: A large percentage of the descriptions in PPOC can also be found in this public access catalog, which also provides access to descriptions of books, serials, manuscript collections, motion pictures, etc. The catalog does not display digital images, however, and does not offer some of the linking features PPOC offers.
  • Library-wide Search System: This search system, which provides access to the Library's web pages as well as descriptions found in the Library of Congress Online Catalog and additional digital collections, includes most of the same content as PPOC, but does not include the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials or specialized display and linking features developed for PPOC.

Unless otherwise noted, references to the "online catalog" in this guide refer to PPOC and links qualified by "(catalog record)", "(summary and search)" and "(search results)" take you to PPOC displays.

Card Catalogs

  • Divisional Card Catalog: This card catalog provides access to descriptions of images described in groups (LOTs) by subject term (these have varied through time), by geographic heading, and, to a lesser extent, by name of image producer or copyright holder. The content has been almost whollly transferred to the online systems, but the subject access may be more extensive in the Divisional Catalog.
  • Card Indexes: Separate card catalogs list fine prints, posters, and other materials that have been cataloged individually, but access is often limited to a single entry under artist or publisher. The card index entries are being converted to online records as resources allow

Finding Aids

Catalog records for groups of images sometimes lead researchers to finding aids—either printed lists, card indexes or, occasionally, electronic finding aids—that provide greater detail about the contents of the group.

Reference Aids

Prints & Photographs Division staff have prepared a variety of reference aids that are intended to assist users in navigating the division's collections and finding tools and, in some cases, to offer a selection of images on frequently requested topics.

Consult Reference Staff

Given the growing availability of digital collections, researchers are often able to conduct their research on their own and without visiting the reading room. But the majority of the holdings have not been digitized; access to them is through tools such as those mentioned above. Researchers are encouraged to consult with reference staff regarding their topics and the best means for pursuing them.

Research help is available by telephone and the Library's Ask a Librarian service, as well as on site in the reading room. Staff will be able to explain the relationships among collections and tools for accessing them and are familiar with where good coverage of various subjects have been located previously. Reference staff and curators specialize in different areas of the collections and can frequently offer background information on particular collections in their areas, as well as leads on fruitful avenues for research. If you have a question, please do not hesitate to ask.

For Further Information