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Saturday, October 27, 2012

As I was walking down the street one day...

As a visitor in NYC recently, briskly walking to keep pace with the throngs of commuters on Fifth Avenue, I came to an abrupt stop at number 597. A New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation plaque announcing the address as the former home of Charles Scribner’s Sons had caught my eye. 

photo by Karen Weiss

Stepping back to take in the full height of this impressive building designed one hundred years ago by Ernest Flagg (1857-1947), I tried to visualize the hustle and bustle of the publishing house, and to place the Archives of American Art’s Charles Scribner’s Sons Art Reference Department records in their true original order.  Looking past the Sephora sign (the building’s current tenant), I wondered which of the ten expansive floors had held these voluminous picture files nearly one hundred years ago? How were the hundreds of photographs, drawings and original illustrations used in its publications, today neatly processed in acid-free containers, originally stored and filed within those walls? 

N.C. Wyeth, ca. 1920
The Archives of American Art acquired the Charles Scribner’s Sons collection in 1957, just a few years after it began collecting primary source documents documenting the visual arts in America. Like many of the early accessions, the collection’s initial treatment emphasized description at an individual document level, resulting in the decision to physically remove photographs of notable artists and art related figures and incorporate them into a “Main Photo File” while paying less attention to describing the overall collection’s purpose and functional history.

I first encountered the photographic portraits in 2000 while leading a project to digitize that central file, which involved dismantling it and returning each photograph to its original collection as a prerequisite for scanning. I can recall my excitement as I saw the trove returning to the Scribner’s collection grow in number, revealing a fascinating mix of subjects.

Duchess of Cambridge, between 1884 and 1889
The collection contains photos of dozens of notable artists and authors affiliated with Scribner’s, among them Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), Royal Cortissoz (1869-1948), Donald Grant Mitchell (1822-1908) who wrote under the pseudonym “Ik Marvel,” Francis Hopkinson Smith (1838-1915), Ernest Piexotto (1869-1940), and N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) to name a few. It also features photos of historical figures as diverse as the Duchess of Cambridge (no, not the current one but Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel who held HRH title from 1818-1889), music critic James Huneker (1857-1921), and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). Each of these photographs are now cataloged individually in the Collection Search Center and also can be found on the Archives of American Art’s website.

In 2009, as part of a major grant funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Scribner’s photographs were again digitized, but this time, the scanning encompassed the entire collection – all nine linear feet of the portrait, illustration and other files.  Instead of individually describing each item, the collection as a whole was first described in a finding aid prepared by an archivist.  Access is at the folder level, and users are given the opportunity to browse the collection box by box, folder by folder, and benefit by understanding the items in context with the full body of documentation. The Archives has digitized over 110 collections in this way, comprising over 1,000 linear feet.

N.C. Wyeth sketch for a book cover, ca. 1922

One would think that the individually described and digitized photographs, an online finding aid and full access to the Archives’ Scribner’s collection would be the end of the road for its description, but with my curiosity piqued by the random encounter with 597 Fifth Avenue, I turned to – what else – a Google search.  The increasing online availability of archival resources led me to discover that Princeton University Library’s Manuscript Division holds the entire 750 linear feet archives of the Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing firm, including the textual records for the Art Department. When notified about our nine linear foot portion, Princeton’s Reference Archivist told me that they had always wondered about the whereabouts of the original artwork.  Soon, both institutions’ finding aids will include reciprocal notes and links that will virtually reunite these holdings.  I also found Princeton’s extensively researched chronology of Scribner’s, listing every significant event in the company’s history between 1846 and 1996. One fact caught my eye and brought me back to 597 Fifth Avenue; Ernest Flagg designed not only this building, but also Scribner’s earlier building at 153 Fifth Avenue, and to top it all off, was the brother-in-law of Charles Scribner II. 

--Karen Weiss is the Information Resources Manager at the Archives of American Art.

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

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