Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

By Micaela Walker

Tour of the American Museum of Natural History’s Library and Special Collections

Micaela Walker

On November 17 I was lucky enough to attend a tour of the Library and Special Collects at the American Museum of Natural History which was arranged by Pratt ASIS&T chair Heather Hill.  The library is located on 2 floors of a building within a courtyard surrounded by other buildings.  The tour was given by the Senior Research Services Librarian, Mai Reitmeyer and she began by showing us on several archival drawings and photographs where, exactly, we were.

The AMNH is notoriously difficult to navigate and now I understand why; the museum is comprised of 28 buildings interconnected over an area covering 4 city blocks. There are buildings within buildings, buildings that can only be accessed via certain elevators to certain floors.  It is a labyrinth of knowledge.  The museum began in 1869 in a building within Central Park, which it quickly outgrew.  Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of Central Park, helped with the initial design of buildings on the site where the museum now stands. However, new buildings and facades were being added and redesigned until 1936.

Illustration of an early design plan for the AMNH

Illustration of an early design plan for the AMNH


Mid construction photo of the Museum in 1878

Mid construction photo of the Museum in 1878

Along with the library, which is in building #1, the museum has over 200 research scientists and curators working in earth and planetary science, astrophysics, paleontology, anthropology, zoology, invertebrates,  several vertibrate departments, one of the largest frozen tissue labs in the world, and a PhD program in comparative biology.  This is, of course, only behind the scenes workings – the exhibits and educational programs  that are open to the public are immense and expansive.

The physical library holds over 1 million photo items including prints, transparencies, and contact sheets organized in rows of filing cabinets and cataloged by area of study (ie geography).

Print (and bust) storage

Print (and bust) storage. The painting at the end was an illustration for the cover of a magazine AMNH used to print.


Librarian Mai Reitmeyer

Librarian Mai Reitmeyer


Digitizing their existing collections of prints, negatives, journals and field notes is an ongoing process that has to be done carefully by hand.  The library has this clever device to scan books, with two cameras and lights placed at the perfect angles to capture pages that are gently pressed into a glass V called the Book Eye scanner.

Book Eye Scanner

Book Eye Scanner


They use EAD as their encoding standard entered in XML when adding the scans and their metadata onto their digital archive, a low res version of which is then uploaded to their online archive, which currently has over 25,000 items in it’s database (

They have partnered with Internet Archive to offer images through their platform, which has nearly 4,000 AMNH scanned items (  Additionally, they have a Flickr photo stream that includes everything from collection items to student drawings from it’s education programs (

They are currently scanning field notebooks from various 19th and 20th century anthropologists and scientists, which will all be available to the public online.  Ms. Reitmeyer, as with nearly everyone I have met in the field since starting the MSLIS program, is more excited about the opportunities that all of this open access affords the museum to connect within it’s own community of scientists and researchers, and to the general public, than fearful of any possible copyright violations or misuse.

Next Ms. Reitmeyer took us to the rare book section which is accessible only with two staff members present to open the door. It looks like an old safety deposit vault only less grand and more utilitarian, with metal shelves surrounding a high central viewing table.


Mai holds up a rare and very large book in the rare book collection

Ms. Reitmeyer holds up a rare and very large book in the rare book collection


There are some seriously big books. And very old fragile ones. The textures of the various crinkly, thick papers feel more like pelt than pulp. Among the treasures she showed us were a page from Charles Darwin’s manuscripts, books from 1551 and 1558 complete with spines intact, books of outrageously whimsical hand colored fish by Louis Renard, a rare copperplate of an owl by Alexander Wilson, and John Gould lithographs.  Each item is encased in an archival box that is custom made by the conservation staff. All told we had a firsthand tour of 400 years of printing methods in about 20 minutes.

Page from Charles Darwin's manuscripts

Page from Charles Darwin’s manuscripts


Fish by Louis Renard

Fish by Louis Renard


Copperplate by Alexander Wilson

Copperplate by Alexander Wilson


Lithograph by John Gould

Lithograph by John Gould


On our way out we got a look at the negative storage lined up perfectly in identical archival boxes and an entire room of audio and film storage covering nearly every format created. The goal is to have everything digitized and, where possible, made available to the public.



We finished the tour as the museum was closing up so I went to say hello to the Titanosaur and catch a glimpse of some of the iconic (if ethically troublesome) animal dioramas. As I left the building I caught sight of this gem by Teddy Roosevelt, carved into the gargantuan wall above the check-in.  I took a picture because I thought my sons could use a bit of fortified, timeless advice like this, but actually I think we would all do well to follow it.



ICP Collection at Mana Contemporary

By Micaela Walker

I have been going to ICP, the International Center of Photography, since I was a teenager in the 1990’s.  A friend was taking black and white photography classes there and I would sneak in with her to use their darkrooms, which were housed the basement of the Willard D. Straight house on the upper east side of Manhattan.  I was excited to see their new collection facility at Mana Contemporary, where they moved to in 2015.

I met with Claarkje Van Dijk, the Assistant curator of collections, who graciously walked me through the facility and answered my litany of questions (although this was an observation, I couldn’t help my curiosity).  She detailed the history of how the collection ended up at Mana Contemporary, a behemoth 19th century former tobacco factory in Jersey City.

Entrance of Mana Contemporary

Founded in 1974 by photographer Cornell Capa as the Foundation for Concerned Photography, ICP’s mission is to promote photography as an instrument of social change, primarily through documentary photography.  The image collection started as a way to archive and house Cornell’s work as well as his late brother Robert Capa’s canon of images, which cover some of the most significant documentation of war in the 20th century, including his iconic D Day images.  Notably, ICP does not like to use the word “photojournalism”, perhaps because they do not see their collection as “neutral”.  Their selection “Images of Social Change” exemplifies ICP’s depictions of the brutality of war, racism, and poverty. Over the next two decades ICP grew to encompass a school, museum and library that also pursue photography as an instrument of progress.

"American troops landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France" by Robert Capa © Cornell Capa

“American troops landing on Omaha Beach, D-Day, Normandy, France” by Robert Capa
© Cornell Capa

From 2000 until 2015 all of ICPs departments were housed together in several midtown buildings, in part thanks to a sweetheart deal of $1 in rent per year courtesy of the Durst Realty corporation (yes that Durst family).  During this time the archive grew exponentially to nearly 200,000, items from around the world spanning the nearly 200 year history of photography. They have a daguerrotype from the 1840s through to work that was produced this year.  This includes images in various formats – negatives, contact sheets, prints, magazines, and framed work encompasses every style and genre of photography. One thing I found extremely interesting is that ICP wouldn’t consider digital work that did not have a physical form until 2009 or 2010.  They have only really begun collecting “solely digital” work in earnest in the last two years.

Unidentified photographer and subject C 1842-3 Purchase, with funds provided by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, 2007

Unidentified photographer and subjects
circa 1842-3. Purchase, with funds provided by Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, 2007

With the expansion of the collection arose the inevitable space issue of all collections. The cost of keeping the archives in Manhattan made little sense, so when the museum was relocated to the Bowery (near the New Museum), the collection moved to Mana. It was chosen because of it’s considerable size and accessibility to Manhattan by the PATH train.  They are in good company at Mana; other tenants include Magnum, the storied photo agency founded by Herni Cartier-Bresson – Magnum and ICP share copyright requests on the Capa brothers’ images, and on the famed street photographer Weegee’s images – and The NY Historical Society.


The space is on the 6th floor of the building, which can only be reached by a single, imposing freight-style elevator that creeps along nervously.  The ICP office, however, has the modern open-air-meets-brick-wall style of a SOHO loft.  The collection is housed in an enormous windowless room with glass on one side overlooking a conference room and offices. The entire room is filled with row after row of industrial racks that nearly reach the ceiling.  The print collection is mostly stored flat in traditional gray and beige archival boxes stacked neatly on shelves and arranged mostly by last name of photographer. Larger framed images are stored vertically in bays at the back. As with most archives, cataloging of the material is in a perpetual state of updating and revision.



Rows of racks of boxes or photos

Rows of racks of boxes of photos

The process of digitizing the entire archive is also ongoing.  They have a digital archivist whose sole job is scanning the collection and entering it in the database in basic form.  Additional details and keywords are added later by other staff and interns. They use The Museum System as their management software and currently they have over 90,000 images digitized in hi res, stored on remote servers, and available to the public in low res on their website for educational purposes. Considering the caliber of photographers they represent and the iconic nature of many of the images it is remarkable to me that they have un-watermarked images online, even in low resolution.  When I mentioned this to Claartje she said ICPs mission of public education  and access pushed them to make the collection digitally accessible at the risk of losing complete control.

I was curious how ICP decided, in this age of unlimited imagery, what to add to its collection moving forward.  Three times a year the curatorial staff have acquisition meetings where they propose works to a secret committee.  While the collection’s holdings were focused primarily on documentary photography from the 1940’s – 1970’s for many years it gradually expanded to include street photography, fashion, fine art, color, abstract works, and even some illustration. The chief curator, Brian Wallis, has made a point of looking to fill niches that are not collected elsewhere – a recent acquisition is a series of Soviet picture magazines.

Another is a collection of more than two thousand vernacular photography items, including postcards, cartes-de-visites, and portraits collected by Daniel Cowin depicting African American life from 1880 through the 1930. Nearly all of the subjects’ identities are unknown in a collection like this and were more than likely taken without any consideration of an afterlife in a museum collection.

Unidentified photographer and subjects. Gift of Daniel Cowin, 1990

Unidentified photographer and subjects. Gift of Daniel Cowin, 1990

This is an issue of particular complicating ethics in photography.  As in the discussion of consent in “The Ethics of Fieldwork” regarding research subjects, a willing participant is entrusting a piece of their identity with the photographer. An unwilling (or unaware) subject is entirely without control so the value of what the person depicts or represents must be weighed with consideration to any violation of privacy or personhood. Whomever possesses the photograph will make decisions with consequences for the subjects of that image, and there is often no clear answer as to what is “more ethical” in documentary photography . This photograph by Nick Ut, included in ICPs database, exemplifies to me the tension between exposing history and exposing individual people.

Children fleeing South Vietnamese napalm strike near Trang Bang, Vietnam. By Nick Ut. @The Life Magazine Collection, 2005

“Children fleeing South Vietnamese napalm strike near Trang Bang, Vietnam” By Nick Ut. The Life Magazine Collection, 2005

ICP seems to be acutely aware of the ethical responsibility their collection entails and indeed sees the context in which it represents their images as crucial to remaining mindful of the images subjects. In a time of infinite imagery, a curated perspective such as this seems all the more needed.

Library Fines: Yea, Nay, or Pay it Forward?

By Micaela Walker

Why does the public library system lend out materials for free but charge people for lateness and loss?  There are two basic reasons, but their effectiveness is largely debated. First, libraries want their stuff back so they can lend it out to other people. Fining people is meant to incentivize them to be prompt and responsible with their loans. Second, libraries need to increase funds to pay for replacement material, among many other fiscal needs. However, neither of these goals seems to be ideally met by traditional fining systems which charge between 10¢ and $3 per day depending on the loan item. Libraries across the country have responded with 2 opposing policies; eliminate fines entirely or send the fines to collection agencies.

A Brooklyn Library card allows you to reserve and check out books as well as pay outstanding fines at a library kiosk and online from home.

A Brooklyn Public Library card allows you to reserve and check out books as well as pay outstanding fines at a library kiosk and online from home.

According to Slate from February 2017, many librarians have concluded that the fines are more effective at deterring people from using the library altogether than encouraging them to return materials. The long term effects of this kind of alienation from a public institution are addressed in this article on libraries and social exclusion:

“Right now, as libraries face limited or diminishing public funding, fees and fines represent alternative revenue. This is a burden, created by citizen voters, public administrators, and librarians, that demonstrably bars low- income users from library access, particularly when applied as a stop on in-house services like computer use. In each of these examples, deliberate decisions are made by those in power—decisions that perpetuate disadvantage for low-income families and blue-collar workers.”

For the bottom line, then, the amount collected in fines may effectively cancel out the amount spent on outreach while instilling in people a sense of shame rather than a love of the library.  This thinking is what motivated Salt Lake City to do away with late fees entirely.

However, the state of Wisconsin in 2016 voted to send fines over $50 to collection agencies, in part to recover the $3.5 million in costs the state racked up due to lost materials. Plumer Lovelace, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Library Association argues that the state needs to have some leverage, particularly when loaning out big ticket items such as iPads which are expensive to replace and in high demand.  The New York Public Library has the same policy. This year the NYPL started a program called Library Hotspot, where any family with a child in the NYC public school system without home internet access is eligible to borrow a wifi hotspot for the entire school year. The borrower has to be an adult and have less than $15 in outstanding fines on their account.  The fine for not returning the hotspot is $100 and having your library account frozen. It’s hard to imagine having a program like this with no penalties in place.

The modern public library system has always functioned on the simple premise that most people will be responsible with borrowed materials and believe in the value of shared public resources.  In the Slate article mentioned above, the Columbus library system reported that 95% of materials are returned on time, and eliminating fines had no real effect on the rate of return.  So, putting aside the most egregious offenders, most people probably incur library fines due to the same human fallacies – disorganization and forgetfulness rather than premeditated theft.

The penalties, however, have vastly different impacts on people in different economic circumstances.  While a person of means may see $10 in fines as a small donation to the library they are happy to give, a person with low income may see it as an impossible barrier to using the library at all.  There are parallels to parking violations that are incurred on public roads where even the most responsible driver among us gets the occasional ticket or violation eventually.  For some a $50 ticket might be annoying but quickly paid online with a credit card, while for others who simply can’t pay the ticket it can lead to a string of consequences that can result in loss of their driver’s license, their ability to get to work, and even jail time. The disparate impacts of fines are similar in the public libraries, whose mission is in part to serve those populations with the least access to information elsewhere.

A possible middle ground may be to hit up those that are already paying their own fines for a bit more cash to cover those that can’t. The method for doing so is already in action in stores across the country. “Checkout Charity” is by now ubiquitous in nearly every large scale retail chain and it is highly effective for fundraising. The most effortless “ask” is when a customer is prompted to add a donation amount on to their purchase total just at the moment they have their credit card in hand.  Options are either to round up (from, say $8.75 to $10) or to select an amount to add ($1, $5, $10 etc.) According to Marketing Magazine, the more in-line the store is with the charity, the more likely people are to donate.

I ask you: Who’s more likely to support the library than someone who is already in the library to pay their fine?? 

Left, the BPL kiosk screen. Right, screen at the drugstore with an ad for the supported charity.

Left, the BPL kiosk screen. Right, screen at the drugstore with an ad for a supported charity.


I spoke with Kenes Bowling, a manager at Unique Management, the “leading material-recovery service for libraries”.  He agreed that it would be a good idea although it would likely need to be implemented locally between library systems and the specific software they use.  Libraries that already have automated kiosks to track accounts and pay fines with credit cards could add a prompt to donate just as a person goes to pay their fine. Librarians could try different angles to see which ask was most effective, such as “would you like to help cover fines incurred by low income children at this branch?” or “x% of people say they can’t return to the library because they can’t pay their overdue fines. Would you like to make an added donation to help cover the costs?”, or even something unrelated to fines such as “would you like to contribute to our after school tutoring program?” You could even use matching grants or fundraising goal charts to further incentivise people to give.

While this would not change the behavior of those who aren’t paying their fines, it could help to support a loss forgiveness program where latecomers don’t have to pay their fines as long as they bring their items back. It could also improve the experience for the fine payer by transforming them from a ne’r-do-well into a philanthropist with the click of a button. They have their credit cards out anyway and maybe they will feel a little better about their own tardiness if they are helping others.

As for establishing good lending/returning behavior as early as possible, research has shown that kids are largely more responsive to incentives rather than penalties. This has been seen with everything from potty training to homework. What if a kid received a small reward, such as a bookmark or a pencil topper for returning all of their books on time?  It may give them just enough motivation to remind their parents that they need to find that stray copy of “Elephant and Piggie” and return it.

NB – I asked my son Roan (age 7)  what the most effective way would be to get him to return his library books on time, a punishment or a reward. He said I should buy him a motorcycle so he can be sure to get his books to the library on time (not happening, but I’m putting that in the “incentive” column).


Graham, Ruth “Long Overdue”. Slate. February 6, 2017.

Gehner, John. “Libraries, Low Income People, and Social Exclusion”. Public Library Quarterly. March 15, 2010.

Piper, Matthew. “Salt Lake City Libraries do away with late fees”. Salt Lake Tribune.  May 25, 2017.

Warburton, Bob. “Wisconsin Law Validates Library Use of Collection Agencies”. Library Journal.  March 1, 2016

“Library Hotspot”.  New York Public Library.

Sanders, Sam. “Study Finds the Poor Subject to Unfair Fines, Driver’s License Suspensions”. National Public Radio (NPR). April 9, 2015.

Powell, Chris. “Checkout Charity: The Art of Asking for In-store Donations. Marketing Magazine.  December 7, 2015.

Belsky, Jay, Ph.D.  “Rewards are Better Than Punishment: Here’s Why”. Psychology Today. September 25, 2018.

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