Detox the Digital at New York Public Library’s Picture Archive


“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
—Jorge Luis Borges, “La Biblioteca de Babel”

I was born in the 1980s. I had a pager years before my first cell phone. In highschool I spent hours on the family computer, in chat rooms with friends and strangers, often while talking on a landline or making a prank phone call to a 1800 partyline. Perhaps this, my experience in the liminal spaces of digital worlds, is why I have maintained a connection to the evolving technologies of my generation like cassette tapes, VHS home movies and zines.

I don’t find satisfaction browsing through pages of a google image search, having to scroll past advertisements and sterile stock images. I love looking at photos on social media, of friends and others I admire living their best lives, but I often find my self feeling overwhelmed, wishing I could make the endlessly scrolling posts freeze for a while.  When a dear friend suggested I visit one of their favorite places in Manhattan, one she said makes time stand still, I immediately cleared an afternoon and took their advice.

The Picture Collection of the New York Public Library, founded in 1915, is the largest circulating collection and reference archive of any public library system. Located on the first floor of the historic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the small research room is open to the public and packed with over one million donated prints, photographs, posters, postcards and illustrations.


The entrance to the NYPL Picture Collection room

Images are categorized by over 12,000 subjects, mostly in rows of alphabetized and labeled file folders.  The space can initially feel daunting if you don’t have a focus in mind for your search, but no more confusing than an internet browser with multiple tabs open (plus, you won’t have to worry about succumbing to clickbait).

One of the rows of file folders categorized alphabetically by subject

I entered without a plan, so I wandered the aisles for a bit and observed other artists and researchers as they combed through files. After deciding on a letter of the alphabet to explore, I stumbled upon a file folder labeled “Inventions.” Each folder is filled with loose leaf images— some are original photographs, magazine and book clippings and others are difficult to pinpoint an origin. Everything is meticulously categorized, like any book or artifact in the library would be, and they allow up to sixty images to be borrowed at a time with your NYPL library card.

One of the many images of “Inventions” as seen while seated at one of the library’s work tables

I sat at a desk and began pulling out various images. Picking up, holding and looking at the images in person was a notably different experience to me than perusing online. The process required me to observe facts about the image with my senses—the worn quality of the paper, looking for a date to place the image in time and space, and reading any text that happened to be on the page the image came from. I have since tried a google image search using inventions as the keyword and had a predictably disappointing, confusing and anxiety fueled experience looking for interesting images.

A scanner is available for saving images during your visit

After spending about 30 minutes going through my first file folder, I set aside ten images that I found particularly inspiring.  I wasn’t interested in borrowing the physical objects, so I decided to use the library’s scanner and save them on a USB thumb drive I brought along. Using the machines was fairly intuitive and there are always one or two librarians nearby to help assist with the scanner or photocopier available (the photocopier has a fee per copy but the scanner is free to use).

A vintage image of an old castle inside a file cabinet of reference postcards

If you have an interest in vintage postcards, there is a tremendous selection, clearly labeled and organized in small drawers. I looked through travel postcards from various cities, Halloween themed designs and botanicals. It was a special experience to see image categories curated by the librarians over the past hundred years, rather than being subject to the outcomes of loosely human-generated algorithms.

Still, some people are more interested in exploring a digital collection and will be glad to know that the picture library collection also exists online. You can sort through most of the images you would find in person and can get started here.  If you’re interested in diving a bit deeper into the history of this unique space, you can read an article by clicking here.

The NYPL Picture Archive is located at:

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
476 Fifth Avenue (42nd St and Fifth Ave)
First Floor , Room 100
New York, NY, 10018
(212) 340-0878
Note: The website states that it is a Fully Accessible space. 

Regular hours
Day Hours
Sunday Closed
Monday 10 AM–5:45 PM
Tuesday 10 AM–7:45 PM
Wednesday 10 AM–7:45 PM
Thursday 10 AM–5:45 PM
Friday 10 AM–5:45 PM
Saturday 10 AM–5:45 PM