5 Amazing Digital Collections for Cultural Historians from the NY Public Library

Historians/History
tags: NY Public Library, Cultural Historians, Digital Collection



Mary Rizzo is Associate Director of Digital & Public Humanities Initiatives for History and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Her book, Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle, examines the intersection between youth stylistic rebellion and the marketing of lifestyle. In addition to her work in public history and digital humanities, she is interested in urban cultural representations. She tweets about all of the above @rizzo_pubhist.

The New York Public Library recently announced the addition of more than 180,000 items to its digital collections, along with improvements to the digital interface to help users find the content they want, especially if they are looking for public domain or restriction-free content.

 

With so much stuff, there's material for anyone from entomologists to cartographers. Highlighted here are five digital collections that may be of particular interest to cultural historians, especially those who deal with 20th century history. These collections contain everything from photos to maps to posters, making them a treasure trove for historians who study visual culture, material culture, design, technology and so on.

 

And for those of us who have dealt with the complicated and often confusing process of getting permission to use images in our published and online work, the NYPL offers a helping hand. First, a great deal of material in the collection is in the public domain, meaning that it can be used freely. For other items, the library has clarified who owns the rights, helping to streamline the process.

 

Plus, they are encouraging artists and others to remix their collections. Downloads of varying qualities are provided to cover all the bases from a blog post to a book cover. 

Overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude? Here are a few places to start:

Fashion

What's more ephemeral than fashion? Although cultural historians, including myself, have argued that clothes are one way that people construct their gender, racial, and sexual identities, because fashion is perceived as frivolous, it can be easily lost. This may be doubly true for men's fashions. The Industrial Revolution meant that men needed to put away their ruffles and capes for clothes that were more rational, like the business suit. Because men's clothes seem to barely change, small tweaks like the width of a tie or a suit with one button or two are significant. Making these changes acceptable to stores and consumers required showing them how these looks looked in order to convince them such changes were needed. This process is captured in catalogs with images like the one on the left, which were used by textile manufacturers to sell their wares to manufacturers. The drawing of the man, the background he's placed in, all tell us a great deal about images of ideal masculinity. Plus, these images have no copyright restriction.

Theatrical Productions

A scene from the Broadway production of the musical Hair.


What's more ephemeral than fashion? Although cultural historians, including myself, have argued that clothes are one way that people construct their gender, racial, and sexual identities, because fashion is perceived as frivolous, it can be easily lost. This may be doubly true for men's fashions. The Industrial Revolution meant that men needed to put away their ruffles and capes for clothes that were more rational, like the business suit. Because men's clothes seem to barely change, small tweaks like the width of a tie or a suit with one button or two are significant. Making these changes acceptable to stores and consumers required showing them how these looks looked in order to convince them such changes were needed. This process is captured in catalogs with images like the one on the left, which were used by textile manufacturers to sell their wares to manufacturers. The drawing of the man, the background he's placed in, all tell us a great deal about images of ideal masculinity. Plus, these images have no copyright restriction.

Menus

The Cotton Club is remembered as a music venue, but it also sold food.


Some of the library's most celebrated collections are of menus. The library crowdsourced the transcription of these menus with the help of the public, making digital more than 1.3 million dishes from more than 17,000 menus. The digital collections, though, also includes images of menus held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a major archive of African American history, which helps to home in on the place of food within African American cultural history.

A menu like this one, from Harlem's Cotton Club in the 1920s or 1930s, tells us about cultural tastes and the transmission of cultures. Particularly fascinating is Chinese food, albeit Americanized versions, served alongside more standard American fare like steaks and sandwiches in a major center of black nightlife. Does this suggest that a kind of cross-cultural exchange or is it an indicator of the longstanding place of Chinese restaurants in black neighborhoods? This menu is a starting point for those questions.

LGBT Activism

LGBT protest in Albany, NY in 1971.


While big cities like New York and San Francisco are known to have been historical epicenters of LGBT life, photos like the ones by Diana Davies show how LGBT activism impacted smaller cities like Albany and Buffalo, NY. By capturing the protests as they occurred, we have a record of who participated, including, in this instance, a women’s group identifying with gay liberation. Several African American men are also included in the photograph as well. Were they with an African American organization? An LGBT organization? There as individuals? The photo may not answer these questions, but it does raise issues that cultural historians can then answer using other archival materials.

World's Fair

General Motor's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair substantially influenced the building of highways in the mid-20th century.


The World's Fairs were major spectacles that offered nations the chance to exhibit their achievements, although, unsurprisingly, they often included displays of racism that were intended to prove white superiority as well. They were also a way to draw people together to dream about the future, to imagine what tomorrow might look like. In all these ways, World's Fairs are fascinating sources into how cultural elites envisioned the past, present and future. The NYPL has two digital collections of World's Fair material. The 1939-1949 World's Fair Records includes thousands of promotional items as well as documentation about the planning and development of the Fair. The New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation Records are much smaller but still includes photos that suggest how nonwestern cultures were being portrayed as frozen in a distant, ethnographic past even in during a time of when formerly colonized people were overthrowing European imperialism.

Indonesian dancers perform at the Pavilion of Indonesia restaurant.


These five suggestions are just a smattering of what the NYPL has to offer. By making these resources available online, the New York Public Library has given cultural historians an unprecedented peek into the past that will shape how we do digital and cultural history into the future.




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