- Not Only Prints: Early Republic-Era Visual Culture Research at the Library Company of Philadelphia
Scholars, the general public, and special collections libraries are increasingly aware of the importance of visual images in examining the past.1 With the proliferation of sophisticated digitization technologies, researchers now have the opportunity to “see” images in new ways. No longer considered secondary to text and used merely to illustrate the written word, visual materials are taking their rightful place as primary evidence that document the past and influences our understanding of the present. The Library Company of Philadelphia supports this continuing focus on the historical importance of visual culture. An independent research library specializing in American history and culture from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, the Library Company was founded as the first subscription library in the country in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and his Junto of fellow tradesmen. Serving as the library for Congress in the later eighteenth century and the city library during the nineteenth century, the Library Company transformed itself in the mid-twentieth century into a closed-stack research facility to both preserve and provide [End Page 284] the best access to its nationally and locally significant collections of rare books, manuscripts, broadsides, ephemera, prints, photographs, and works of art.
Through its 281-year history, the Library Company has collected visual material and since 1971 has maintained a separate graphics department, with current holdings at over 70,000 items. Among the visual treasures are Peter Cooper’s Southeast Prospect of the City of Philadelphia, a circa 1720 painting believed to be the earliest painted view of a North American city; an 1844 William and Frederick Langenheim daguerreotype showing a crowd gathering outside of militia headquarters during anti-Catholic riots, often referred to as Philadelphia’s first news photograph; and the three-volume elephant folio of John James Audubon’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America (1845–48), filled with 150 beautifully hand-colored lithographs of wildlife. The Library Company also holds subject and genre collections rich for visual study, including more than 8,000 late nineteenth-century trade cards, many relating to popular medicine; nearly 800 mid-nineteenth-century comic valentines; and a strong collection of books relating to the history of printing, as well as optics and optical equipment dating back to the sixteenth century.
Launched in 2008, the library’s Visual Culture Program (VCP at LCP) promotes the use of historical images as primary sources for studying the past and fosters research, collection, and interpretation of historic visual material. Through exhibitions, research fellowships, conferences, and public programs, VCP at LCP, under the direction of Curator of Printed Books Rachel D’Agostino and Associate Curator of Prints and Photographs Erika Piola, promotes the creative use of the Library Company’s varied collections of visual materials. These programs have included the 2010 Philadelphia on Stone exhibition researching the first fifty years of commercial lithography in the city, and also a talk by local artist Jennifer Levonian describing how the Library Company’s Civil War collections inspired her 2011 animated work “Rebellious Bird,” which is also discussed in a blog about her experience accessible on the VCP website (http://www.librarycompany.org/visualculture/index.htm). The website also provides information about the fellowship program and descriptions of past and forthcoming events, as well as an overview of the visual culture materials related to other subject strengths at the library, including Philadelphiana, women’s history, economics, natural history, popular culture, and African American history.
In the summer of 2011, in further support of the mission of VCP, directors D’Agostino and Piola chaired a panel at the annual meeting of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). The panel, “Not Only Prints: Early Republic-Era Visual Culture Research at the Library Company [End Page 285] of Philadelphia,” was designed to disseminate awareness of the breadth and depth of the Library Company’s visual culture collections, the importance of visual materials as primary sources, and the methods scholars could pursue to perform graphically oriented research. The presenters were Alison Klaum, PhD candidate in English at the University of Delaware; Aaron Wunsch, a lecturer in the...