The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Words with pictures, or, What’s in a name?

One of the points I like to make when I teach the History of Printed Book Illustration at Rare Book School is that images and words affect each other. The course deliberately focuses on illustrations—that is, on pictures and text that comment on each other, and affect each other’s meaning. It’s not just the aesthetic design and choice of subject that create meaning in book illustration, it’s the relationship between the visual and the verbal elements. This holds true any time pictures and words come together, of course. It’s not unique to book illustration. The words we use with pictures matter.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (first published in 1972) gives what has become a classic example:

This is a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it. Look at it for a moment. Then turn the page.

oil painting

This is a blog post, so rather than asking you to turn the page, I’ll ask that you scroll down.

oil painting
This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.

The words make a difference, don’t they?1 For the record, the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, notes that Vincent Van Gogh actually painted several other pictures after this one. The notion that it was his final painting is simply a persistent rumor. This just helps prove the point, though. Once you’ve seen the picture labeled “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself” you can’t un-see the association, even if you know it’s not true.

Most printed books at the Folger are “self describing,” to use cataloging jargon. For example, the title of Folger call number V1239.G3 Cage is clearly “Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda.” We know this because it says so right on the title page.

Folger call number: V1239.G3 Cage

But what’s the title of the picture that faces the title page? The picture doesn’t tell you. Because you know its location in the book, you might call it something like “Frontispiece to the 1678 edition of Katherine Philip’s poems.” Alternatively, you might use the lettering in the image itself, and simply call it “Orinda.” You could also combine your knowledge of the context with the lettering and use “Representation of Katherine Philips in the form of a portrait bust entitled ‘Orinda'” as the title.

Catalogers in special collections libraries (myself included) routinely face the problem that most pictures are not self-describing. In theory, we could make up whatever title we wanted and could get away with. In practice, though, catalogers follow internationally recognized guidelines. In the case of pictures, Folger catalogers use Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Graphics), commonly shortened to DCRM(G), as our guide. This fact is encoded in the 040$e (“oh-four-oh-subfield-eee”—more cataloging jargon) of the MARC record, the subfield reserved for “description conventions.”2

DCRM(G) instructs catalogers to take a picture’s title from “text (printed, manuscript, or electronic) provided by the creator or creating body on or with the material” whenever possible.3 In this mid-17th-century print, for example, the sitter’s name appears in big letters below the image:

Folger call number: 234367

Following the instructions in DCRM(G), the print’s title would be recorded as “Wenceslaus Hollar” (and the required note on the source of the title would be something along the lines of “Title transcribed from lower margin”).

If the sitter’s name is not given, other text can provide the title. For example, the lettering in the upper left corner of this etching from 1645 reads “Unus Americanus ex Virginia, aetat. 23.”

Folger call number: ART Box H737.5 no.29

These Latin words provide the print’s title, at least in a library context, because library cataloging prioritizes transcription from the material. Why do libraries use transcribed titles? Partly, it’s because librarians are trained to see themselves as supposedly neutral information providers. I might think that a more useful title for this print would be an English translation of the Latin, and consider calling it “An American from Virginia, age 23.” That wouldn’t be quite right, though, because it makes it seem as if the man is from the English colony of Virginia.

In fact, he was from an area known in English at the time as New Netherland. The “Virginia” in the Latin text means “virgin territory” in the sense of “new” or “unused” land. The land was hardly new or unused in 1645, though. People had been making their homes there for thousands of years.

Then there’s the whole issue of whether or not it’s appropriate to describe the man in the picture as “an American.” Library cataloging rules make things much simpler: the creator of the print wrote “Unus Americanus ex Virginia, aetat. 23” on it, therefore “Unus Americanus ex Virginia, aetat. 23” is the print’s title. Needless to say, copying out what’s already on the print rather than coming up with something new also speeds up the cataloging process, and makes it easier for users to find that specific print in different library collections.

But what if the picture doesn’t come with any text that can be used as a title? Luckily for catalogers, DCRM(G) provides detailed instructions and many examples. It basically boils down to two options: preferably, supply a title from an “authoritative source”; if that’s not possible, devise “a brief descriptive title” according to the step-by-step guidance given.4 Just as book historians turn to descriptive bibliographies for an authoritative source, art historians turn to catalogues raisonné.5

Many Collation readers will be familiar with using STC and Wing numbers to refer to specific published books. For etchings by Wenceslaus Hollar, scholars use “P.” numbers. At first, “P.” stood for “Parthey” (for Gustav Parthey, creator of the 1853 catalogue raisonné Wenzel Hollar; beschreibendes Verzeichniss seiner Kupferstiche), but after Richard Pennington published A descriptive catalogue of the etched work of Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677 (Cambridgeshire and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), which continued and expanded Parthey’s numbering, “P.” came to mean “Pennington.” For example, this untitled print is P.2007:6

Folger call number: ART Vol. b35 no.46

Because numbers aren’t suitable for a formal title, untitled Hollar etchings typically have titles supplied from Pennington’s text. In the case of P.2007, the supplied title would be “Young Negress.” Typing that phrase plus “Hollar” into a search engine shows that it is, indeed, commonly used as the print’s title. When card catalog records for the Folger’s art collection began to transcribed into Hamnet in the early 2000s, I used “cataloger’s judgment” to move the Pennington title to a cross-reference (so that the print can still be found by using it), and replaced it with the descriptive phrase “Portrait of a young African woman” (a “devised title”).

Devising titles makes catalogers nervous. In addition to general anxiety about perfection (what if there’s a better title out there and I just haven’t thought of it yet?) we know that we all have conscious and unconscious biases. It’s much more comfortable to take cover behind the “authoritative source” of a catalogue raisonné. When dealing with depictions involving race, gender, class, and other power structures, though, there comes a point where “I supplied the title from Pennington according to the provisions DCRM(G) 1F1” becomes “I was only following orders.” As John Berger’s example of a landscape of a cornfield with birds flying out of it reminds us, titles of pictures matter.

This particular story has an added twist: after over 150 years as the authoritative source on Wenceslaus Hollar’s prints, the Parthey/Pennington era recently ended. Simon Turner’s nine-volume catalogue raisonné, published as part of the massive series The New Hollstein German Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts 1400 – 1700, came out between 2009 and 2012. Folger staff plan to enhance older Hamnet records for Hollar prints by adding cross-references to New Hollstein titles while the library is closed for renovations. There will undoubtedly be untitled prints where the New Hollstein title would be an improvement on what’s already there, but changing a title triggers a cascade of updates that need to be done by one-by-one. It’s an issue we’d like to avoid as much as possible until we at least have a system where updating information in Hamnet automatically updates the same information in the Folger’s digital image database.

As it happens, I think that the New Hollstein title for the print currently called “Portrait of a young African woman” in Hamnet is an improvement. New Hollstein calls it “Head of a Black Woman with a Lace Kerchief Hat.”7. For one thing, this title distinguishes the print from the other Hollar etching called “Portrait of a young African woman” in Hamnet (Folger call number ART  237- 212). New Hollstein calls this other print “Head of a Black Woman in Profile to Left.”8

For another thing, “portrait” isn’t the correct art historical term for the picture discussed here. It was wishful thinking on my part. I wanted to give this woman the dignity of having been commemorated in a portrait, but it’s clear from Hollar’s work and historical context that this picture is not intended to capture the sitter’s individuality for posterity. Like so many other pictures of nameless women in Hollar’s work, this is a head study with special attention to clothing, not a portrait.

Given all this, should the Folger re-title the picture? If it had been acquired recently, the New Hollstein title would definitely have been used in Hamnet. It’s a reasonable title, the print is known by that title elsewhere, and using the New Hollstein title gives the cataloger (me!) the illusion of having escaped responsibility. There’s just one more tweak needed. As an art historian and scholar, I’m accustomed to using title case for titles, so “Head of a Black Woman with a Lace Kerchief Hat” looks right to me. Library catalogs, however, use sentence case for titles, making it “Head of a Black woman with a lace kerchief hat.” That looks right for a sentence, but even after over twenty years of librarianship, it still looks weird to me as a title.

  1. The Van Gogh example comes from pages 27 and 28 of the 1977 Penguin Edition of John Berger, Ways of Seeing. The image is Wheatfield with Crows by Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Auvers-sur-Oise, July 1890. Oil on canvas, 50.5 cm x 103 cm. Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), used per the the conditions governing the use of image material in the Van Gogh Museum Collection.
  2. Many pictures in the Folger collection were cataloged before DCRM(G) was published in 2013, and therefore follow Graphic Materials: Rules for Describing Original Items and Historical Collections, the previous edition of the standard. These records have the code “gihc” in MARC 040$e. For more on DCRM(G) versus Graphic Materials, see the Collation post Picture cataloging: new rules for old.
  3. DCRM(G) 1A2.1.
  4. DCRM(G) 1F.
  5. See the Index to Print Catalogues Raisonné maintained by the Print Council of America for a searchable database that currently covers European and American prints, print publishers, drawings, and photographs; and Japanese prints and photographs.
  6. See the Collation post “Portrait of a Young African Woman” by guest author Alicia Meyer for a recent discussion of this print.
  7. New Hollstein German etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700, Hollar 815. Many thanks to Jocelyn Karlan at the Biblioteca Berenson in Florence, Italy, for looking up the New Hollstein references for me. (Folger staff are still working from home because of COVID-19, and I don’t have a personal set.)
  8. New Hollstein German etchings, engravings and woodcuts, 1450-1700, Hollar 813.

One Comment


  • Thank you—I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It was in cataloging class that I had my only meltdown in library school! Your article was engaging and informative. I’m going to have to see what else you write. Thanks for such an enjoyable read. (And I got a kick out of the “oh-four-oh-subfield-eee” discussion. We only barcode at my tiny college library, but I enjoyed my cataloging class in library school.Again, thank you for this great article.


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