McKim Building steps in the 1920s. (Maynard Workshop)
The Boston Public Library’s Print Department Is One Treasure Within Another
There’s a lot more than books in the library, as PHSNE will discover when it visits the Boston Public
Library for its meeting on Sunday, March 2, at 1:45.
The group will assemble in the lobby of the McKim Building facing Copley Square with two activities
on the agenda: a tour of the architectural treasure that is the McKim Building, with its restored John
Singer Sargeant murals, and a visit to one of the library’s jewels, its Print Department, and its
collection of historic and contemporary photography.
Aaron Schmidt, who works with the collection, says he is planning to bring out rarities from several
holdings, including its Boston pictorial archive, the largest public collection of early images of
Boston, photographs of the American west by Timothy O’Sullivan, A. J. Russell, and Carleton
Watkins, and press photography from The Boston Herald Traveler and Leslie Jones, a Herald
Traveler staff photographer for four decades, whose collection of 40,000 negatives documents
historic events and everyday happenings in Boston from 1917 to 1956.
The library’s Print Department was established in 1941 with the gift of the Albert Wiggin collection of fine-art prints. Photography was consciously excluded from the collection — it lacked respect as a serious art form. That changed in the 1960s, when the curator added photography to the department’s collection mission. A search of the library’s resources revealed that the institution already had substantial holdings of images, and in the years since, gifts have increased it substantially — particularly the 104 file cabinets that contain the photo morgue files of The Boston Herald Traveler.
The photographic collection has been estimated at a million or more images, said Schmidt, but recent reassessment of the Herald-Traveler archive indicates it alone could be as large as 1.4 million photographs.
-From snap shots, March 2008.