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So what do you have here?

Oct 31, 2008 11:57 AM | 0 comments

Brooklyn Public Library - Central construction

"Here" being the Brooklyn Collection, this frequently asked question could take hours to answer.  The Brooklyn Collection has an extensive and varied collection of books, photographs, maps, manuscripts, ephemera, objects, and much more about Brooklyn history from its earliest days to the present. Providing access to these collections is one of our main goals, along with preserving the materials for future researchers. 

Our finding aids, lists, and card catalog are the key to discovering the secrets within the Brooklyn Collection. While a few of our finding aids are already online (for example, the Playbills and Programs Collection), many more are not. A visit to the Brooklyn Public Library puts these finding aids into the hands of researchers. But what if you don’t live in Brooklyn? Or can’t easily get to the library?

Online finding aids to the rescue! We are working diligently on creating a standard finding aid format for our myriad special collections using Encoded Archival Description (EAD), a method for encoding archival materials in XML. Once they are coded and online, these finding aids will make it easier for researchers to explore our collections.

The Library of Congress maintains the EAD Version 2002 Official Site at This site has the EAD tag library, an essential resource for anyone working with EAD. There is also a history of the development of EAD over the past 10 years and an active listserv. Another useful collection of links is maintained by the Society of American Archivists at Their EAD Help Pages are a fantastic resource with general information for beginners, lists of institutions using EAD, tools and DTD (Document Type Definition) files, and much more, including my personal favorite, the EAD Cookbook.

Check the Brooklyn Public Library’s web page for updates, coming soon!

1835 in an envelope

Oct 30, 2008 2:46 PM | 0 comments

Nine straight-edged pieces of colored paper lay stuffed into an envelope in the bottom drawer of a map case until, one day, a curious Brooklyn Collection librarian took them out and pieced them together. 


In colors as bright as they day they were painted, Daniel Haskel’s Map of the City of Brooklyn from 1835 took back the shape it had lost after tearing along all of its folds at some unknown time in the past.  At just 11 by 14 inches it was once a handy pocket map that showed downtown Manhattan as well as Williamsburgh and the newly chartered City of Brooklyn. The outlines of the City Wards in green, yellow, orange and magenta, looked so fresh they could have been painted yesterday, instead of over 170 years ago.  The map was sent out to a professional conservator, repaired, encapsulated and made ready for use in a busy public library.  

Compared to the beautiful Hooker’s map of 1827, Haskel’s lacks detail. The inlet from the Gowanus Bay--now a canal--is still a winding stream draining marshes and millponds, with a street grid laid over it.  The Gowanus road follows the undulating course of an Indian path, while Third Avenue, the only numbered avenue on the map, goes dead straight in the same direction.  The bends and turns of the Jamaica Turnpike lie almost parallell to the unyielding Rail Road to Jamaica. In the palimpsest of the city, one can still come across vestiges of roads that predate the straight lines favored by developers, but in Haskel's map the new ways and the old lie side by side in plain sight--a snapshot of a moment before the victory of the new ways was complete.

In Praise of Blue

Oct 28, 2008 4:21 PM | 2 comments

For those of us used to seeing photographs in black and white, sepia or color, the cyanotype, or blueprint, comes as a surprise.  The result of a printing process discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842, cyanotypes provide a simple developing process using two chemicals in a photosensitive solution that can be applied to paper or other material. A positive image can be produced by exposing the material to sunlight.  When the paper is flushed with water after exposure, the Prussian blue salts remain in the paper giving the print its intense blue color.

Although by far the bulk of the Brooklyn Collection’s photographs are silver gelatin prints, two collections – one of them recently acquired—contain cyanotypes.  One of the collections, nameless until two seconds ago when I decided to call it the Subway Construction Collection, from the years 1903 -1917—contains images of scenes that are similar to each other (though not identical) using three different processes: silver gelatin, platinum print and cyanotype—affording the viewer an unusual opportunity for comparison. By several different photographers, these 8 x 10 prints—large for a cyanotype—were originally produced for the Public Works Administration. The platinum print has an impeccable matte finish which can only be appreciated when the photograph is removed from its Mylar sleeve.  To me, the cyanotypes have an unmatched beauty and immediacy. On flimsy pages that might have been cut from a notebook, the images have the quality of a jotted memorandum. 

Construction machinery, horses dragging huge loads, people wearing hats and spats—the collection shows long views of streets that still exist today, though changed in a thousand ways. And as always there is humor where you don’t expect it: the side of a building advertises the “Long Island Bird Store: dogs, cats, poultry pigeons other pet animals boarded.” And then the kicker—“ Taxidermist.” And in case you’d rather not waste money on stuffing your pet, right above that is “J.W. Hodges, Meat Market.” That building stood on the site that is now the Midtown Florist and Nursery next to BAM, a site that was at one time eyed for Brooklyn’s Library for the Visual and Performing Arts—one of several Brooklyn dreams that remained just that. The Subway Construction photos reveal the city as palimpsest more thoroughly and consistently than any other group of images we have—and they do it in blue.

The other blue group is by Julius Wilcox. Books will be written about Wilcox, who was a journalist, editor, and man of many interests.  Of his cyanotypes he writes, “When these photos were made—1892—photography was comparatively crude. ‘Developing papers’ were hardly known and positives were obtained by the old printing out processes. For these proofs—as memoranda of pictures designed only for lantern slides—I used an easy method, blue prints, but made on an exceptionally good line of paper.”  Wilcox also photographed the built environment, but the great cyanotypes in this collection, comparable to the work of Jacob Riis, show working class and homeless people--the quick and the dead--in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I doubt that lantern slide companies would have used his photographs of bodies in the the morgue, or of drunks lolling on a bench, or of children in Silver Dollar Smith’s saloon at midnight. 

Authorities do say that cyanotypes that have faded through exposure to light will regenerate when stored in the dark, which if true, would make the cyanotype the superhero of processes, with powers beyond anything in the black and white world.