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Top Tips for Successful Research in the Prints and Photographs Division

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Collection guides and reference aids


1. Plan ahead
  • You can often get a sense of what we might have that is relevant to your topic by searching the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC): It covers about 95% of our holdings, though not every one of our more than 14 million pictures is digitized or even itemized in the catalog. Our collection guides and reference aids can also help in locating materials.
  • Some materials are off site or require staff assistance to view.  Pay attention to "Access advisories" that appear in PPOC or in collection overviews.
  • Large projects: Contact us ahead of time for advice about relevant collections and time estimates to see them (see #2 below for contact information).
  • If you will need quality copies, you can purchase them through the Library's Duplication Services. Turnaround time to receive the copies is 3-4 weeks for most materials but can take as long as 14 weeks for copies from nitrate negatives.
Contact Prints & Photographs Division 2. Use our Ask a Librarian service or Reference telephone number.

We're available Monday – Friday, 8:30 – 5 pm.

  • Our reference telephone number is: 202-707-6394. Select the menu option to speak with a reference staff member. We can give general guidance and assistance with online searching over the phone.
  • Alternatively, submit an Ask a Librarian query at: We monitor this account daily and refer your query to the staff member who is best equipped to answer it. Generally we can can get an answer back to you within three business days, sometimes less.

Many people assume they will get a faster answer if they contact an individual staff member.  But answers to your questions may be delayed when people are away or tied up with other research requests.

Research background materials

3. Become familiar with names, dates, places, and events associated with your topic.

The more you know about your topic, the more ways we can suggest to locate relevant pictures. Consulting books and articles before you start your research in P&P is often the best place to gather the information that will help you find pictures. Our "Resource Lists and Bibliographies" page and the selected bibliographies that accompany most of our online collections and reference aids may suggest sources to check.

Registration in Prints and Photographs Reading Room

4. If you're coming to use the P&P Reading Room, leave a little time for our registration procedures

Ours is a special collection that includes many irreplaceable artifacts.  In addition to asking you to show a Library of Congress Reader Identification Card, we will ask you to:

  • Stow away all belongings except pencils, loose sheets of papers, laptops without cases, cameras without cases, and thumb drives. No binders, spiral notebooks, pads of paper, or books are permitted. We can supply scratch paper and pencils.
  • Leave your belongings in the lockers in our foyer. You need not use the Library's cloakroom if you are coming to our reading room, as most belongings will fit in the lockers.
  • Read over our guidelines for using the reading room and sign our daily register. 
Using a camera in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room

5. Bring a camera on which you can turn off the flash feature.

Since many of the pictures are too old or fragile to go on a photocopy machine, a camera is an essential tool for making reference copies. Photographing conditions in our reading room (lights and plastic coverings on the pictures) will not make it possible to get publication quality, but will help you to remember what you saw. More information on photographing in the reading room is available at:

Using a flash drive in Prints and Photographs Reading Room

Using wireless laptop in Prints and Photographs Reading Room

6. Bring a thumb drive. If you have a laptop that has wireless capability, that's even better.
  • In some cases, because of rights considerations, higher resolution jpeg or tiff images display only when you are in Library of Congress buildings using  the Library of Congress equipment or wireless connection (you agree, in using these, that you are responsible for rights assessment).
  • A thumb drive ("flash" drive) will enable you to download and take home these larger files. 
  • Some thumb drives don't work well in our public workstations, so a laptop with wireless capability is the most reliable means for taking home digital images. Using the Library of Congress wireless connection in any of the Library of Congress buildings enables you to download the larger files directly to your laptop.
Researching rights information - Prints and Photographs Division documents 7. Copyright and other restrictions: Be prepared to do some research or risk assessment if you are planning to publish or distribute images from our collections. We do not hold rights to images in our collections and, therefore, are not in a position to grant or deny permission to use them.
  • We do not license images.
  • We cannot sign permission forms (with one exception: Seagram County Courthouse Archive).
  • We will tell you as much as we know about the image and any rights restrictions we are aware of. Usually this is conveyed in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (look for "Rights Advisory") or on the Rights and Restrictions Information page, where there are listings by artist, organization, or collection. 
  • In many cases, we do not have specific rights status information or there is not enough information about an image to know its status. It comes down to your assessing the risk for the purpose you intend. Tips for assessing risks, including the duration of copyright, can be found in "Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images: Assessing the Risk of Using a P&P Image":
For further information about using the Prints & Photographs Reading Room or reference service from a distance, please see our "Information for Researchers" document.
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  May 24, 2011
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