In Defense of Browsing

Look up SWIMMING, and the results are very different from what Google Image Search gives you. Photo: Jason Fulford

Editor’s note, September 17: After this essay appeared, the New York Public Library announced that the Picture Collection will move to a new space in the Schwartzman Building, where it will continue to circulate and be browsable. You can read Curbed’s follow-up story about the decision here, and the library’s own notice here. A demonstration at the library that was scheduled for September 21 to protest the potential closure has been called off.

My first job in New York was as an assistant to the illustrator James McMullan. He was, alongside Milton Glaser, a member of Push Pin Studios, which indelibly defined the spirit and look of the city. In the book Pushpin and Beyond, Veronique Vienne details the studio’s routine in the ’60s: “To keep a high level of productivity throughout the day, a research assistant would be dispatched to the Forty-second Street Public Library’s vast pictures collection to find inspiring reference material. Acting as a divining rod, he or she would often return to the studio with unexpected iconographic loot. The research process was so stimulating that it became the basis of Push Pin’s unique brand of historicism.”

The Picture Collection is a 106-year-old resource, open to the public. It’s a straightforward idea — visual images, cut from magazines, catalogues, and books, pasted on backings and organized in folders by some of the best librarians in the world. The pictures themselves range from vernacular to fine art. There is nothing else like it in New York, and soon there will be nothing like it at all, because the director of research libraries, William P. Kelly, plans to eliminate public access to the collection. He’d like patrons to find what they are looking for “before they come to the library.” In his August 4 piece on this news, for the New York Times, Arthur Lubow reported that “Kelly wants users of the Picture Collection to be more prepared and less spontaneous.” It will no longer have its own space and will not be added to or freely accessible. When these pictures are moved, the P of the PL will not be able to browse them. Which is their whole point.

This dismissal of spontaneity is bizarre, coming from someone who is supposed to understand research. Visual literacy takes different connective paths from verbal literacy. If you want to know how something is defined, words work. If you want to know how something looks, pictures work. I worry that the practice of unmitigated, truly random browsing — locating by rabbit holes, chance, sifting, intuiting that perfect piece of reference — might be further lost if the NYPL decides this kind of research should not be prioritized, and, indeed, deliberately narrowed. We don’t think in synonyms.

As an assistant to the production designers at Saturday Night Live in 1993, I was sent to the picture collection to find images of submarines and caves and Harlem in the 1920s. Ming Cho Lee sent his assistants (including my SNL boss, Akira Yoshimura) to the collection to sign out pictures for his Shakespeare in the Park sets. Using the collection, I can tell you firsthand, is utterly different from targeted engine searching. If I look up “swimming” online, I get 34 stock photos of mostly white, female swimmers in pools before I get to a picture of a swimmer in a river. When I visit the picture collection, next to the folder marked Sweden: Visby, I get two bulging Swimming folders. The first picture I pull is an 1864 woodcut of women in a lake by Felix Vallotton. I get a swimming-hole painting by Thomas Eakins, then three swimmers depicted on a Grecian urn. Then a faded Edwardian-era photo of two laughing women, knee-deep, in full-body bathing costumes, then an underwater National Geographic image of a pink flamingo, followed by a photo from 1979 of three Black boys swimming in the Flint River. The intent, reinforced over a century of image collecting, is to show breadth rather than create clickiness.

While I’m looking through the pictures , the librarian Jay Vissers quietly suggests I may also want to look through the folder called Drowning.

The feeling of fortuitous gratitude at coming across unexpected information is something most of us who’ve done any research, have experienced — that kismet of finding the perfect book, one spine away from the one that was sought. In the field of art and image research, this sparking of transmission, of sequence and connection, happens on a subconscious level. The cultural theorist Aby Warburg believed that a natural language of visual meaning is transmitted nonverbally. primarily through high and low images. We intuitively understand this knowledge. Ninety-eight years after his death, anyone with an Instagram account confirms Warburg’s ideas. The NYPL Picture collection has supported this expanding literacy, keeping in step with established Warburg libraries and scholarship in London and Hamburg. If the library’s plan succeeds, people looking for pictures they have never seen will have to spell out what they think they want, and wait, possibly for hours, while that one thing — but nothing alongside it or related to it — is retrieved by someone else. There will be no time or quiet space to look, sift, think.

Physical browsing, thoughtfully and slowly, sometimes absentmindedly is out of practice, thanks to Amazon and its ilk. Google Image does a little of this work, and it is useful. But algorithmically chosen images are not fresh. They are low-hanging illustrative fruit: the pictorial version of wilted vegetables in the bottom of the crisper. The most used, the least surprising. Stale. (Digitizing the bulk of the Picture Collection is impossible due to copyright law.) Optimization means that the images at the top of the stack are the ones that, at one level or another, someone is paying for you to see.

All learning includes the nonverbal, the sub- and unconscious. The transmission of images is faster and more legible than the transmission of words. Tweens, generations younger than I am, don’t bother captioning their Instagram posts. Why is the vernacular image still being dismissed as ephemera? Why is its study not being prioritized? All languages are alive, but visual language is galactic. Keywords are not eyeballs, and creating rutted pathways to follow is the antithesis of study. A century of visual language, knowledge, and connectivity is marching toward a narrow, parsimonious basement of nomenclature. The NYPL takes a step backward if it models its shelves and research on a search engine. Spontaneity is learning. Browsing is research.

In Defense of Browsing