The Visual Culture Program at the Library Company of Philadelphia endeavors to bring awareness of the library’s visual collections to scholars, both to enhance ongoing research and to inspire new projects. Our researchers’ ability to discover new ways to use the visual materials we hold is confirmation of the vitality of visual culture studies and the importance of visual culture programs in research institutions like the Library Company.
Visual materials have always played a key role in society, and examining the value placed on them by members of the society can add significant depth to one’s research. Anne Verplanck conducted extensive research at the Library Company in the collection of papers, ephemera, and photographs of mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia-based antiquarian John A. McAllister, for her upcoming book on Philadelphia as a center for artistic production. In the paper she presented at the SHEAR conference Verplanck described her findings about how antiquarians collected, shared, and even created visual materials that depicted their understanding of their city’s and nation’s history (Verplanck’s essay will appear as a separate publication). Examining what they [End Page 314] chose to preserve tells a story about the collectors. While these antiquarians were keen to identify the most accurate image of an individual or the best depiction of an early manifestation of a building, they nonetheless focused their energies on the powerful, and left the powerless to shrink into oblivion with the passage of time. In an 1854 letter to McAllister, New York–based antiquarian Benson Lossing explained that mid-nineteenth-century antiquarians should rely on “patriotism, good taste, and public sentiment” to guide them in the creation of an illustrated history of their time for future generations. Through an examination of resources like the McAllister Collection at the Library Company, we can more deeply engage the creation of that history, while questioning its fundamental tenets.
In the same way that we must look critically at the collectors of our history to determine to what extent they are the creators of our history, we must look at the institutions that are the stewards of that history to get a fuller perspective on it. In his essay, Aaron Wunsch advises us to “study the repository as you study your topic.” Wunsch used the 1835 Catalogue of the Books Belonging to the Library Company of Philadelphia to investigate what printed works were available to those who were devising plans for the new rural cemetery at Laurel Hill. This approach had the potential to be particularly fruitful, as the primary deviser of the cemetery was the Library Company Librarian at the time, John Jay Smith.
As Wunsch discovered, the Library Company’s long and active history can tell stories about our city and our nation that are bigger than just the materials we hold. In particular, our catalogs, published at irregular intervals through our history, can shed light on what was available to people in Philadelphia at a particular time, and what was deemed important by our librarians and others who added to our collection. Much more difficult to determine is how the collection was used, but occasionally this too can be ascertained, and can lead to new insights. Wunsch’s examination of drawings in the collection, coupled with his knowledge of the institution’s history, and in particular Smith’s connection to both the Library Company and Laurel Hill Cemetery, led to a reevaluation of the creation of the cemetery. It also led to an examination of how library staff of the time used our collections to further their own goals—a not entirely comfortable revelation! Without the visual resources in the Library Company’s collection, it would have been impossible to reconstruct the creative process that formed Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Much can be learned by examining how visual materials were viewed, used, and perhaps abused by their contemporaries. We can also learn a great [End Page 315] deal by studying how and why they were created in the first place. The important influence of visual materials was appreciated long before developments in printing processes, such as lithography, made it easier to mass-produce illustrations for advertisements. Carl...