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Researcher's Toolbox

The resources below provide information and methods for exploring image history, processes, content, and meaning. Information about searching and using the Prints and Photographs Division collections can be found in the general documents: "Information for Researchers" and "Top Tips for Successful Research in the Prints & Photographs Division."

G. M. (George Moutard) Woodward, engraver, Caricature curiosity
G. M. (George Moutard) Woodward, engraver, Caricature curiosity, 1806.

Identifying and Interpreting Images

  • Every Photo is a Story - A five part video series in which reference librarian Kristi Finefield and architecture and landscape historian Sam Watters lay out ways to uncover the story in a photograph, using examples from Frances Benjamin Johnston garden and architecture photographs. "Try It Yourself" exercises accompany each part, giving viewers a chance to apply skills learned during the video.
  • Visual Literacy Exercise (PDF document / 165 kb /) - A method for looking systematically at an image and determining what you see, what knowledge you bring to what you see, and what you would like to investigate further.
  • "Reading and Researching Photographs" by Helena Zinkham. In Archival Outlook (Jan./Feb. 2007): 6-7, 28. Available online [pdf] External link
  • Solving a Civil War Photograph Mystery - Describes clues and resources used to identify a Civil War Photograph reputed to be of Ulysses S. Grant.
  • What Do You See? (via Library of Congress Teachers site) - Asks questions about sections of a Civil War photograph and, on a second page, supplies the answers.
  • Looking at Pictures: An Invitation to the Prints and Photographs Collections at the Library of Congress - Webcast that provides an overview of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division holdings and tips for exploring the collections
  • Popular Photographic Print Processes Represented in the Prints and Photographs Division - Provides brief descriptions and chronology of processes popularly used to make photographic prints since the beginning of photography.
  • Dating Photographs:
    • The Costume Detective: How to Date Old Photographs by the Costume External link - Provides information on fashion trends of various eras that can be used to help date photographs, as well as examples showing how fashion details visible in a photograph can be used to narrow down the date of the image.
    • Family Chronicle: Dating Old Photographs (via the Wayback Machine) External link - Provides dated photographs (including several from Prints & Photographs Division Collections), of people 1840s-1900s, as a tool to match clothing styles and styles of portraiture for purposes of dating undated photographs. (NOTE: Family Chronicle Magazine stopped publishing in 2015 and changed its name to Your Genealogy Today. The web page no longer seems to exist but is being offered from a 2013 capture by the Internet Archive.)
    • "How to Date Family Photographs," National Archives Blog, April 2, 2020. - Offers tips and techniques, resources, and viewer comments.

Staff member researching stereograph photos in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room
Staff member researching stereograph photos in the Prints & Photographs Reading Room. Photograph by Cyndi A. Wood, 2008.

Researching Specific Prints and Photographs Division Collections

Resources for Learning More About Researching Images

From the American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning, Graduate Center, CUNY and the Center for History and New Media (George Mason University):
  • Making Sense of Evidence External link - Provides strategies for analyzing online primary materials, with interactive exercises and a guide to traditional and online sources. “Scholars in Action” segments show how scholars puzzle out the meaning of different kinds of primary sources, allowing you to try to make sense of a document yourself. Includes segments on photographs and political cartoons.
  • Picturing U.S. History: An Interactive Resource for Teaching with Visual Evidence External link - Provides online "Lessons in Looking," a guide to Web resources, forums, essays, reviews, and classroom activities to help teachers incorporate visual evidence into their classrooms.

Prepared by: Prints & Photographs Division staff. Last revised: Nov. 2021.
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  March 28, 2022
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