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The Picture Collection of The New York Public Library

Over 30,000 digitized images from books, magazines and newspapers as well as original photographs, prints and postcards, created mostly before 1923 and selected from the over 1,000,000 images in the Mid-Manhattan Library's Picture Collection. The Picture Collection is particularly rich in images of New York City, American history, and clothing and dress.

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Digital ID: 823914 European clothing and headgear, 1400-1500s. Digital ID: 823914

Collection History

This digitized presentation of over 30,000 items represents a select group of images from The New York Public Library Picture Collection at the Mid-Manhattan Library. Since its creation in 1915, the Picture Collection has met the needs of New York's large community of artists, illustrators, designers, teachers, students, and general researchers. Covering over 12,000 subjects, the Picture Collection is an extensive circulating collection and reference archive, the largest of its kind in any public library system. Most of these digital images originally appeared on the NYPL website "The NYPL Picture Collection Online."

The digitization of selected Picture Collection postcards now accessible through NYPL Digital Gallery has been supported in part by funds from the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) through the New York State Regional Bibliographic Databases Program.


Within two years of the opening of The New York Public Library's central building in 1911, the Print Room found itself overwhelmed with requests for prints strictly from a subject point of view. Most of these requests came from artists and illustrators in the employ of New York City's burgeoning graphic arts industries and cultural enterprises, which included movie studios, Broadway and vaudeville theatres, advertising agencies, publishing companies, and fashion houses, all competing for new ideas and pressuring their artists and illustrators to deliver them. The Print Room, a repository for fine art prints, did have a wealth of the sort of material that was sought, but its holdings constituted a rare and fragile collection that could not withstand heavy use. Moreover, these holdings were cataloged by artist only, not by subject.

In 1914, the Circulation Department began saving plates, posters, postcards, and photographs for the new sort of "reader." The Library's annual report for 1915 announced: ". . . a picture collection for lending was desirable. Requests have come from schools, city history clubs, moving picture actors, and advertisers. . . . Borrowers include not only people who have been card holders in the Branches, but an increasing number whose first interest in the Library was aroused by the picture collection."

By the end of that year, 17,991 pictures had been prepared for circulation. Many of these pictures came from old magazines and books that might otherwise have been sold for scrap paper. Donations began to pour in. In 1926, with the growing collection now housed in Room 67 of the central building, Ellen Perkins, formerly a chief cataloger in the Circulation Department, was given the position of Head of the Picture Collection, and the Picture Collection was formally established.

In this modest way began a collection that is today, at five million items, a major resource for visual ideas. Over the years, the Picture Collection staff built and organized so diverse and comprehensive a collection that libraries, corporations, and governments from around the world have studied its structure and consulted its librarians in order to apply its lessons to their own picture libraries. Historically, the development of the collection illustrates the way in which effective approaches to service and cataloging for visual materials evolved, and how the cataloging of pictures came to diverge from the traditional bibliographical orientation of descriptive cataloging, emphasizing instead the maximum number of access points to a picture's subject content.

Read more about the history of the Picture Collection and the contributions of Romana Javitz, whose leadership shaped the Collection profoundly over many years, in Worth Beyond Words: Romana Javitz and The New York Public Library's Picture Collection, from which this text has been adapted.

Related Resources

NYPL. "The NYPL Picture Collection Online." (Web site) <>

_____. "Historical Postcards of New York City from the Picture Collection at Mid-Manhattan Library" (Online Exhibit) <>

Troncale, Anthony T. "Worth Beyond Words: Romana Javitz and The New York Public Library's Picture Collection." Biblion: The Bulletin of The New York Public Library Volume 4, Number 1 (Fall 1995)


Library Division(s)

NYPL Digital Gallery provides free and open access to over 800,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities in the vast collections of The New York Public Library, including drawings, illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more.