Inside the Library
posted: May 27, 2008
In the Nineties, I was up at the Picture Collection in the Midtown Manhattan Library three days a week, pawing through the folders of magazine and book clippings in search of reference for costumes and locales and animals and anything else I needed to illustrate at the time.
Then I got a computer and discovered the Web. As the internet was expanding my horizon with images and ideas and information from around the globe, I found my world was also shrinking — increasingly I was looking for my reference online and no longer getting out of my studio for a couple of hours every other day to go up to the library.
I went back to visit The Picture Collection last week and met up with Jay, one of the librarians who used to regularly help me hunt up just the right paper reference.
“I think being a librarian is the kind of thing that not too many people choose as a first career. Most librarians have done something else first, and not liked it or not done well at it. And most librarians get along well with people on a one to one basis, but might not work well with large numbers of people. They are sort of like rebels, in a quiet kind of way, although I do have to admit that some of the dullest people I've ever met in my life are librarians; though if you wanted to be more charitable you could say they are self-contained. But with most librarians, you could say that the interesting parts of them are very much inside.
“I had a degree in Asian Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, and after that I spent four years as an officer in the Navy, in the intelligence service. It was like what you see in the movies, where you keep track of enemy ships and planes and tell the pilots about where to fly and that sort of thing. It was interesting in its own way, but there was a lot of structure and organization and every day was planned out ... for somebody who has imagination and who likes difference and doesn't like monotony...it was very, very difficult to deal with. So I didn’t like it.
“When I left the Navy, I came back to live with my parents, and one of my friends told me that he was going to school to be a librarian, and I looked at the books he was studying, and the classes he was taking and the homework he had to do, and I thought, ‘I could do this.’
“So I went to school to get a librarian degree in Texas, and they sent recruiters from New York to some of the job fairs down there. All my life I’d wanted to see the city – New York is a place most people around the world would give an organ to live in – and they hired me and I came here.
“I had a lot of the standard misconceptions about the city fostered by TV and movies; like I thought that everyone in New York lived in a really spiffy apartment, and had a picture window view of Central Park and the Empire State Building.
“When I first came, I worked in smaller branches, like a branch in the Bronx for five years, but then a job opening was announced for the Picture Collection, and I decided to apply for it, because I had been given a brief tour of it during an orientation for the library and it seemed like something I would like to do.
“A lot of the patrons have very specific things in mind, and they think there’s already a picture like this existing and we have it. Well, sometimes we don’t, so you have to help these people find something close to it, or things that they can combine into it. Like somebody asked us for a picture of an astronaut with a wooden leg, because they wanted to convey the image of a space pirate, but I told them that if somebody who worked for NASA and was an astronaut somehow lost their leg, they would probably get a better fake leg than a piece of wood like a pirate. So basically they got a picture of an astronaut and a picture of a pirate and combined them. Another time, somebody said, 'I need a picture of a tsunami just before it hit the shore.' 'Who took this and lived?' was my answer. But we got pictures from a surfing file that showed a close-up view of a huge wave, so generally it’s divided between people who need very specific stuff and they know what they need and people who have very vague sort of concept ideas.
“I have no formal art training at all, but ever since I was a child I liked to draw and I liked books with pictures in them. I used to like to try to draw the pictures out of the books and then when I got a little better at being able to draw, I tried to invent things from my own mind. I have a little trouble with the technical aspects of drawing, but I can basically draw anything I can imagine. If I can imagine it, I can put it on paper.
“I don’t think what I draw is that good, but it's a lot of fun to do and I get an incredible amount of joy out of it. I’ve been working on a huge science fiction story ever since I was 12 years old and I have lots of illustrations for every aspect of the world in which it takes place.
“Being a librarian at the Picture Collection, I really like the mixture of quiet behind-the-scenes work where we cut out and label the pictures and put classifications on them, and the other time where there's the interaction with the public at the information desk. It’s one of the few jobs in the world where you get to see the result of what you do. When people check out and return pictures, you see they’ve taken something that you’ve thought of to clip and it really makes you feel useful.
“I like to talk to the artists, I like to get their business cards, I like to know what they’re working on and what the pictures are for. Some of them will come back and say, this is what I made out of the picture, this is a magazine cover or if you see this play, the costumes were from the Picture Collection. Or the circus costumes this year were inspired by this picture.
“I have a good visual memory. I can remember the poses of people in one thing and I can see where an artist has used them in something else, or I can tell if an artist has composited something from something else. In fact, I think I may have actually found something that no one ever noticed before. There's a 19th Century Japanese woodblock print artist who did a series of pictures that are almost exact copies of American paintings from 100 years before that. He did an engraving of a battle involving Samurai, but the positions of the people in the picture are exactly the same as an American artist’s picture of the Battle of the Bunker Hill. And since the Japanese artist did these pictures just after Japan was opened to the West, it might say something about what kind of books were available to people in Japan at that time. I’ve looked at books that show those pictures and none of them mention this connection.
“Sometimes there’re people who have a very specific idea of what they need. And if we don’t have exactly what they need, it’s the old question of, 'Well, what are they paying you for? You’re useless, you don’t have anything!’ Now the best thing that ever happened – and we joked about this happening, and finally it did – we were saying, one of these days, somebody is going to be at the desk working on a pile of pictures and a patron is going to come in and ask for something incredibly obscure, and it’s going to be what you are working on right at that time and you are just going to hold it up and say, ‘Oh you mean this?’ and they are going to be utterly flabbergasted. And it did happen once! I can’t remember what it was a picture of, but it was some obscure way that a person was dressed in a certain city in a certain country at a certain time and I just held it up and went, ‘Oh, this?’ And they were amazed, because they hadn’t expected to find that at all.
“I like the interaction with the people across the desk. I meet some of the most interesting people. I feel like, in a small way behind the scenes, we contribute very much to the cultural life of the city and the country, because what we do finds its way into everything imaginable, and it’s just a neat opportunity to be very useful to people — it can be helpful. People like what we have and they like finding it.
“Sometimes I’m afraid that with all the images on the Internet, a lot of people think the Picture Collection is an esoteric sort of a frill, but it gets a lot of use and the people who use it are very grateful for it. They say the difference between us and the online stuff is, the online stuff is all the standard iconic things: Marilyn Monroe, the soldier kissing his girlfriend at the end of the war, stuff like that. But we have lots of stuff that the Web doesn’t: we have every day objects viewed from odd angles, we have all sorts of plants and creature and costumes, and pictures of every day life in the city, pictures of furniture …
“We’re keeping up with the times. Because we deal with paper pictures, we can only assign them one heading, so the only way to put more copies of something into the files is to buy more copies of the books we cut them out of. But now we’re digitizing our stuff that’s 100 years old or more, because it’s copyright free. Those are going to be put on the Internet to make them available to more people and that also means they will able to be given multiple subject headings for one picture. So there will be a lot of access points for them and they won’t only be in one file.”