The Gatekeepers of the NYPL Photography Collection

By nfesta

Although I am a native New Yorker, I haven’t owned a New York Public Library card since I was about 10 years old when my elementary school class visited our local library branch. Since returning to the city in a more official capacity and attending Pratt, I felt it was necessary to register for a New York Public Library card. Signing up for a library card was simple. I completed part of my application online and then visit a local branch to provide a suitable form of identification and be issued a card. With this universal all-encompassing library card, I expected that any materials within the various collections of the library would be easily accessible. Yet, I discovered that it is not as simple of a process as one might assume.


Before visiting the NYPL’s main branch, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, I searched through the library’s online catalog of collections to identify what I wanted to view at the library. I found a few nineteenth century photographically illustrated books that were being held on-site in Photography Collection of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs and were labeled as “Available”. However, within the online catalogue system I was unable to place these items on hold as the item record stated that although it was available it was accessible “By Appointment Only”. While you can access almost all of the resources available within the NYPL, you must gain special permissions and admissions by “the keepers” of those collections. As Barbara Case and Ying Xu argue about the resources within public libraries, archives and museums, in Access to Special Collections in the Humanities: Who’s Guarding the Gates and Why?, “…access to research materials under each institution’s protection may be granted in accordance with a variety of restrictions and practices” (134). The procedures and permissions required for gaining access to special materials within libraries is important as it ensures that collections are well-preserved over time and that the patron requesting access genuinely needs access to the materials. However, during my observation trying to gain access to a nineteenth century photographically illustrated book, I experienced the blatant hegemonic restrictions and practices within the NYPL.


As the materials I wanted to examine were available and stored on-site in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, I had to simply make an appointment to gain permission to view these nineteenth century photobooks. The NYPL website is confusing of how to best go about making an appointment and gaining access to the materials you want. It suggests calling or emailing the Photography Collection librarian reference desk in regards to your inquiry, while also proposes that you can come in-person to make an appointment. The website also mentioned a form that may have to be filled out in-person to acquire a “Card of Admission”, which would require one to provide a traceable identification and supply the name and address of a non-relative for the library to verify. As I was unsure what was the easiest and quickest method to make an appointment and issued a “card of admission”, I traveled to the NYPL’s main branch to inquire.


Upon arriving at the Schwarzman building I had no idea of where to go to make appointment to gain access to the Photography Collection. The Photographs Study Room did not open until 1:00 p.m. so thought that any of the staff within NYPL would be knowledgeable about this “standard” procedure. I approached to the first Information Desk on the Third Floor and asked how I could make an appointment. I was directed to the Reference Desk in Bill Blass Public Catalog Room, in which I asked the same question to this Reference Librarian. The Librarian was not familiar of how to make appointments with this specific collection and referred me to the information on the website, which of course was not helpful as it was the same information I had consulted earlier. I was then referred to ask the Information Librarian in the Rose Main Reading Room, who then referred me to ask a Librarian in the Art & Architecture Wallach Division Room 300, as these Librarians had more connection and access to the Photography Collection. The Librarians in the Art & Architecture Wallach Division were also not sure how I could make an appointment, and were conflicted with instructing me to send a general email or call the Photography Collection. They decided that since I was here in the library it would be better if I called them as they should pick up the phone even though the study room wasn’t open to the public before 1:00 p.m. So, I walked out of the Wallach Division doors, through the Rose Main Reading Room, and then the Bill Blass Public Catalog Room and out into the large hallway of the third floor to make a phone call, as all of the rooms on the Third Floor are quiet areas.


As soon as I called the Photography Collection, a librarian immediately picked up and was able to help with my request for an appointment and pull the books I wanted to consult so I could access them when the doors opened at 1:00 p.m. When I gave the name of the book I wanted to view and was informed that it was available and would be ready for me that afternoon. I didn’t have to give the Librarian my name or library card number, but was informed that I would have to fill out a form and provide information when I arrived at the study room. In order to gain entrance into the Photography Collection study room I had to buzz a doorbell. The door is locked from the inside and one of the Librarians had to get up and unlock the door for me to enter. I then had to sign into the daily register book, as well as fill out an admission form to acquire a special collection library card. The admission form asked for my name, contact information, address, affiliations, reason for accessing specific resources and requested the name of a non-relative to verify my request to gain access. Though I was immediately issued a Special Collection Library card valid for 6 months and given access to the resources I had requested, this process and procedure implemented by the Photography Collection staff exemplified the authority librarians have over their selected domains.


The “keepers” of these collections have control and power in determining whether or not you are allowed and given access to consult specific materials. Moreover, this example also demonstrates the librarians have authority in determining which materials require special permission to be accessed and which can be called by anyone at anytime. Certain resources within the NYPL have been determined as “valuable” by those that control the ways in which information is structured and accessed. These issues of accessibility and control with determining the “value” of resources, address concerns pertaining to “Information Literacy” and the power and bias formed through the ways in which archives and records are classified, organized, preserved, and actively managed by librarians and archivists as well as the institutions. These hegemonic library knowledge organizations and structures directly affect the accessibility of information by consumers. The control and power gatekeepers have over these records can be used to aide or prevent users from finding and accessing collections.


This observation study case of the NYPL also demonstrated that each of their collections and divisions are very separate entities from one other. None of them know the specific procedures or information of the other. As the NYPL is a huge library with vast collections and numerously staffed, this is understandable. However, each individual division holds extraordinary power over their specific collections. While it is important that individual divisions control and are specialized in the knowledge and organization of there collections, for such a large institution with numerous collections under the same umbrella of the NYPL, information and access to those materials can be confusing, difficult and determined solely by one entity. Furthermore, if access were to be granted to anyone for whatever reason, why make patrons go through the entire ordeal of making an appointment to request permission to access a select group of materials? Does this process properly ensure that a patron truly wants and needs to access that information? Regardless, this process and procedure demonstrates that access to specific materials within a public domain is controlled by various individual hegemonic systems.


Case, Barbara, and Ying Xu, “Access to Special Collections in the Humanities: Who’s Guarding the Gates and Why?,” Reference Services in the Humanities, ed. by Judy Reynolds, CRC Press1994

Pawley, Christine, “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 73, No. 4 (Oct., 2003), pp. 422-452

Drabinski, Emily, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Vol. 83, No. 2 (April 2013), pp. 944-111

Schwartz, Joan M., and Terry Cook, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2: 1-19, 2002

Caswell, Michael, “”The Archive” is Not an Archives: Acknowleding the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies,” Reconstruction, Vol. 16, No. 1


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