To create more work space, we’re starting to sort through the hundreds of “ready reference” books that fill the shelves in the shared staff areas on Deck A, pulling out volumes that really don’t need to be kept that handy. For example, it’s a safe bet that Art Information and the Internet (How to Find It, How to Use It), written in 1998, won’t be of much help in 2015. This project brought me face-to-face with the magnificent but totally out-moded A.L.A. Portrait Index—all 1600 pages of it—which I hadn’t looked at since Art History Bibliography and Library Methods class in 1993. Please allow me to introduce you to this venerable resource, created by the American Library Association and published by the Library of Congress in 1906. 1 Spoiler alert: the darned thing turns out to be useful to us after all.
The Portrait Index was designed “to enable librarians, authors, students, publishers, and editors to turn directly to portraits which would otherwise be found with difficulty or might elude their search altogether.” 2 Using this resource, they could look up any of tens of thousands of names to find the specific page of a book or periodical where that person’s picture appeared. Here’s a sample, showing the start of Ben Jonson’s entry:
The book’s preface describes some of the curiosities of its arrangement. For example, most sovereigns were entered under their forenames, but “rulers of many oriental nations and places (e.g. Siam and Madagascar) are entered under the name of the place, for the practical reason that oriental personal names are unfamiliar to Western ears and are with difficulty remembered and identified.” 3 Wives of English baronets and knights also proved exceptional:
In the case of English baronets and knights and their wives, where it is desired to keep the wife next to her husband in the alphabetical sequence, we have taken the liberty of inserting the husband’s name in brackets. For instance, the wife of Sir Thomas Dyke Acland is Lady Acland, not Lady Thomas Dyke Acland, but in order to keep her next her husband we are compelled to print Acland, Lady [Thomas Dyke]. 4
Research for the Portrait Index began with a call for volunteers in the May 1897 issue of the American Library Association’s Library Journal. These volunteers combed through over six thousand volumes of popular magazines, illustrated biographies, and other publications from lists of likely candidates, producing over 115,000 crowd-sourced index cards of names and page numbers. The editors transformed this information into an alphabetical listing of between 35,000 and 45,000 people.
You can browse or search the Library of Congress copy, scanned in 2012, in the Internet Archive:
The Portrait Index takes a broad view of what constitutes a portrait. It “makes no attempt to estimate the value of portraits, to pronounce upon their authenticity, or to present any further information in regard to them than is plainly given in the book in which they are reproduced.” 5. In other words, the captions are taken at face value. 6 Consider this “portrait” of Shakespeare:
It’s definitely a portrayal of Shakespeare and his family, but it’s a fair bet that it’s not an authentic likeness of them in an actual situation.
So why is this book still useful at the Folger when you can find pictures of just about anyone by typing a name into an online search box? As it happens, it can help us fill in some blanks. Here’s the card catalog record for the above print, which was transcribed and adapted for Hamnet in 2009 with “[n.d.]” for “no date” changed to “[mid to late 19th century]” as a best-guess without further research.
And here’s the entry for the same print in the A.L.A. Portrait Index:
Hooray! Now we can replace “mid to late 19th century” with an exact year (still in square brackets, since it’s not printed on the piece itself), and add the note “Published in vol. 66 of the Eclectic Magazine, according to A.L.A. Portrait index, p. 1329.” (If a scanned version of the Eclectic from 1866 happened to be easy to find online, so I could verify the entry, the “according to” note wouldn’t be necessary. But it isn’t).
Unfortunately, this means we won’t gain four inches of shelf space by moving the A.L.A. Portrait Index. Instead, some lucky intern will get to go through it, looking to see how many of the undated and unsourced loose prints in the Folger collection can be matched up. Luckily, shelf space has been gained in other ways, such as converting the five-volume 22nd edition of Library of Congress Subject Headings into matching monitor stands for Reading Room staff.