Guide to the Research Collections




Biography is collected comprehensively by the Research Libraries, with American biography forming one of the largest groups within this subject collection of 83,000 volumes. The preponderance of materials consists of individual biographies, as the following indicates:

Biographical dictionaries and other reference works7,500 volumes
Collective biography11,000
Individual biography64,500

Biographies of subject interest are generally located with the literature pertaining to that subject, biographies of artists, for example, being maintained by the Art and Architecture Division, and those of musicians by the Music Division. Biographical information concerning a figure of the stature of Sarah Bernhardt is thus available in the General Research and Humanities Division, and further specialized materials related to her life and career are administered by the Theatre Collection of the Performing Arts Research Center.

The heavy use of biographical materials by readers and staff has resulted in the transferral of many volumes from the general collections to places of convenient use. This plan of special location applies particularly to biographical dictionaries and collective biographies. Working collections are located at the Information Desk in Room 315, at the Main Reading Room Desk, on the open shelves of the Main Reading Room, and in Preparation Services (the latter intended primarily for staff use, although available to the public). In the case of annuals and other compilations which appear at intervals, a progressive arrangement often locates the most recent volume on the open shelves; the next most recent volume, in one of the working collections; and earlier volumes not needed elsewhere, in the general collections. Locations are indicated on the catalog cards.

Other valuable sources of biographical information include encyclopedias, particularly those published abroad (a reference collection is located in the Main Reading Room), local history and genealogy, and the publications of institutions and organizations. An example of the latter type of material is found in the working collection of alumni registers kept in Preparation Services. The resources of the Manuscripts and Archives Division are notable for biographical materials, particularly for American historical, literary, business, and scientific figures.

Biographical materials in scholarly periodicals are extensively indexed by individual card entries in the Public Catalog. Special attention is given to indexing material related to figures for whom other biographical information is lacking. The catalogs of some of the divisions of the Research Libraries contain references (mainly to periodical articles) which are not included in the Public Catalog. This is particularly true in the case of the catalogs of the Art and Architecture Division, and the Music Division and the Theatre and Dance Collections at the Performing Arts Research Center. Many divisions maintain files of biographical information. For example, much elusive biographical information will be found in the extensive clipping file of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Special Indexes and Files

Art and Architecture Division

A general clipping file preserves material relating to artists, including biographies, portraits, and the like.

Dance Collection

The clipping file in the collection contains biographical information on dancers supplemented by scrapbooks and clippings given by Ruth St.

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Denis, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and others.

Economic and Public Affairs Division

A general clipping file contains biographical material relating to government officials and important financial and commercial figures. The scope and content of the file is determined by current interests, and ephemeral material is discarded when no longer pertinent.

General Research and Humanities Division

A card file arranged by subject and by occupation locates books in the Research Libraries containing current biographical sketches.

Local History and Genealogy Division

A vertical file is arranged by name of family (primarily American, although including other nationalities). All types of uncataloged materials are contained in the files, such as clippings, typescripts, and other ephemera. Supplementing the vertical file are a variety of scrapbooks for prominent American families, such as the Carnegies, Roosevelts, and Whitneys.

Another inactive card file is an index to probate notices giving details clipped primarily from notices in the New York Times. The file concentrates upon the 1920s and lacks the letters A-C. There is also a large but inactive international biographical index to scientists and aviators in the Local History and Genealogy Division (discussed in chapter 54).

Music Division

A biographical file consists of entries containing a great miscellany of biographical information about musicians and their work. A portrait index refers to portraits in many sources in the Music Division and in other locations of the Research Libraries. A clipping file in the division holds material arranged by composer's or performer's name, and broadly by subject area.

Prints Division

The division maintains a file of clippings, pamphlets, catalogs, and other material relating to print makers. The names of the persons represented are listed in the catalog of the division.

Theatre Collection

An extensive vertical file consists of clippings on theatrical figures, including motion picture, television, radio, and circus personalities. Two notable scrapbook collections, the Robinson Locke collection of dramatic scrapbooks, and the David Belasco collection of typescripts, photographs, original designs, and scrapbooks, supplement the vertical file.


Biographical Dictionaries and Collective Biographies

The collections of retrospective biographical works of this nature are substantial, with many of the standard sets such as Dictionary of National Biography, Dictionary of American Biography, and Allgemeine deutsche Biographie available in the reference collection of the Main Reading Room. Contemporary biographical collections of the "who's who" nature are also well represented, with nearly complete holdings of the publications of the United States, Canada, and Western European countries. For other areas, in particular South America, many items are far from current, although they appear to represent the latest compilations available. The General Research and Humanities Division endeavors to maintain current files despite erratic publishing.

Associated with these contemporary biographical publications are the specialized, professional, or trade "who's whos." The Research Libraries collect these publications extensively for the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, attempting to obtain material for other countries when possible. The Science and Technology Research Center acquires the membership directories of the larger scientific and engineering societies. Other biographical information is found in the very extensive holdings of United States county histories in the Local History and Genealogy Division. Biographical dictionaries of the lives of prominent men of the various states are a feature of the American History Division. Biographical data about prominent Europeans is often found in the necrologies of local and national learned society publications. Significant items are indexed in the Public Catalog.

Individual Biographies

The strong resources in this area include several outstanding collections: biography of women has been given special attention; the naval history section includes many biographies of naval officers; Negro biography is found both in the Research Libraries' general holdings and in those of the Schomburg Center; individual as well as collective biographies of New York men and women are well represented in the American History and the Local History and Genealogy Divisions.

First and early editions of the noted biographies in the English language such as Thomas Fuller's History of the Worthies of England, Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, and Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians are found in the Rare Book Division and the Berg Collection.

The extensive collection of shorthand periodicals in the Research Libraries has been indexed for biographical materials up to the date of the printed catalog of the collection (1935).1 There are, in addition, collective biographies for shorthand reporters, stenographers, and court reporters.

A number of scrapbooks containing newspaper and magazine clippings, postcards, and the like, supplement the books in the general collections. Most of the figures represented are North American; the most extensive holdings are those for Abraham Lincoln and Elihu Root.

Jewish Division:

Some 2,000 volumes in the resources of the Jewish Division include virtually all biographies written in Hebrew or Yiddish and

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certain biographies relating specifically to the Jews. Certain studies of subject importance are in the relevant divisions; for example, biographies of Jews notable in the arts are located in the Art and Architecture Division, those of scientific figures in the Science and Technology Research Center.

Oriental Division:

The Oriental Division collects representatively all new biographical material that is available through purchase, exchange, or gift. The division acquires materials published either in Oriental or Western languages in all areas of Asia and those areas of Africa for which the division customarily collects. The strongest section, books in Arabic and in translation on Arabic subjects, is covered by more than 500 entries in the divisional catalog.

Slavonic Division:

The holdings of more than 3,000 biographical volumes are principally in the Cyrillic alphabet and relate to Russian subjects. The division collects books comprehensively, but collects the great number of biographical pamphlets published in Eastern European countries on a representative basis. Russian royal biographies are a feature of the collection, with important items relating to Peter the Great and Catherine II.


Two extensive collections of manuscripts are of note for biographical studies. The rich holdings of the Manuscripts and Archives Division include materials relating to nearly all fields, primarily from the United States and particularly from the state of New York, and the holdings of the Berg Collection concentrate on the fields of English and American literature. Information on manuscript collections useful for biographical purposes is available in the sections devoted to the Berg Collection in "General Literature," chapter 20, "American Literature," chapter 23, and "English Literature," chapter 24 of this Guide.

Manuscripts and Archives Division:

The personalities, opinions, and careers of figures as diverse as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, Norman Thomas and H.L. Mencken, are documented by major collections. Diaries and correspondence are held in abundance, along with secondary biographical aids such as business papers.

One of the major series in the Manuscripts and Archives Division is classified as Personal Miscellaneous Papers, in which residents of New York State predominate. The chronological range extends from the eighteenth century; earlier materials, while present, are generally single items rather than archival groups.

Most collections contain biographical materials concerning the lives of associates and contemporaries of the central figure; typical among such collections are the papers of Horace Greeley, Samuel J. Tilden, Noah Webster, John Quinn, and Carl Van Vechten. Other archives such as the Hardwicke collection range from papers relating to Elizabeth I and James I through the personal and official papers of the eighteenth-century British diplomat Sir Luke Schaub.

The holdings of the Manuscripts and Archives Division are strengthened by extensive series. Editorial correspondence files of the Century Magazine and the Macmillan Company are essential to biographers of nineteenth-and twentieth-century literary figures; the papers of Evert A. and George L. Duyckinck contain letters of Melville, Poe, and other figures of the first half of the nineteenth century. The Alfred W. Anthony and DeCoursey Fales collections hold much material of biographical importance. The division maintains alphabetical listings of these and similar collections.


General Collections

Collections of portraits in book form are classified with materials in the general collections. Volumes of portraits with specific subject interest, for instance those which are principally biographical, are placed in the appropriate subject division. Extra-illustrated books containing portraits are found in the Rare Book Division and in rich holdings in the general collections, where there are, for example, numerous editions of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson with inserted views and portraits. These portraits may be located through indexes in the Prints Division; individual cards are not filed in the Public Catalog. The A.L.A. Portrait Index is found in nearly all divisions having requests for portraits, and has in many cases been annotated with the library's class marks for indexed materials.

Engraved and Photographic Portraits

Holdings of individual portraits in the Research Libraries fall into the two categories of engraved portraits, dating from the fifteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries, and portraits dating from the invention of photography. Engraved portraits, drawings, and caricatures are found in the Prints Division, with the exception of those for theatre personalities (in the Theatre Collection), dance personalities (in the Dance Collection), and musicians (in the Special Collections Reading Room of the Music Division). The holdings of engraved portraits are generally limited to public personalities, whether celebrated or notorious. There are no general collections of photographic portraits in the Research Libraries, but only scattered specialized collections in the Prints Division and the vertical files of the subject divisions. The vast portrait resources of the Picture Collection of the Branch Libraries are discussed below.

There are important groups of portraits in the special collections and subject divisions of the Research Libraries. Early gifts contributed extensively to the present resources; this is particularly true of the Lenox, Duyckinck, Bancroft, Emmet, and Tilden collections. The Tilden collection is rich in the works of Birch, Lodge, and Caulfield, with an extraordinary group of Gillray's caricatures covering the entire period of the artist's work, from 1777 to 1811. The Beverly Chew collection of literary portraits in the Prints Division contains superb groups of portraits of John Milton and Alexander Pope.2 The Charles Williston McAlpin collection of George Washington portraits and other materials was a gift in 1942. There is a fine group of Benjamin Franklin portraits in the Prints Division. Bound compilations in the general collections include portraits of Napoleon and the Medici family.

North American Indian portraits form another strong group of materials located in the American

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History Division, the Prints Division, and the Rare Book Division. Among the rarer items are a set of John Simon's mezzotints after Verelst's paintings of the four Indian chiefs who visited London in the reign of Queen Anne. In the Rare Book Division are published examples of the Indian portraits of George Catlin, as well as his Souvenir of N. American Indians (1850), a three-volume collection of original pencil drawings. The Rare Book Division also has the fine series of portraits in several editions of Thomas L. McKenney's History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836-70) and in Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian (1907-30), illustrated with more than 2,000 photographic plates.

The Carl Van Vechten gift to the Research Libraries included photographic portraits divided by subject area between the Theatre, Dance, and Berg Collections and the Manuscripts and Archives Division. The literary portraits in the Berg Collection contain an unusual group of more than 180 studies of Gertrude Stein. More than 150 additional photographs depict scenes from plays by Gertrude Stein.

Prints Division

The most accessible of the uncataloged portraits in the Research Libraries are contained in more than 200 boxes in the Prints Division; these are arranged alphabetically by sitter. In addition, indexes and reference materials in the Prints Division may be used to locate portraits elsewhere in the general collections.

There are two card indexes for pictorial material including cataloged portraits. The subject index to original single portraits in the Print Room locates individual portrait prints including those bound or incorporated in books. The arrangement is alphabetical by sitter. The subject index to original portrait prints shelved elsewhere in the library locates portraits in selected books which are shelved in locations other than the Prints Division. This index refers to portraits in extra-illustrated books in the Rare Book Division and in books in the Emmet collection of the Manuscripts and Archives Division. Both indexes are supplementary to the A.L.A. Portrait Index and other standard print bibliographies such as Hans Wolfgang Singer's Allgemeiner Bildniskatalog and the British Museum Catalogue of Engraved British Portraits, which are annotated to show divisional holdings.

Science and Technology Research Center

The Science and Technology Research Center has maintained a card index to books and periodical articles about ships, which includes portrait material. This alphabetical file indexes names of ships, uniforms worn on various ships, and portraits of ships' captains; it covers materials in the Science and Technology Research Center and elsewhere in the Research Libraries. The file was kept active until the 1940s, and since that time has been enlarged on a selective and irregular basis.

Dance Collection

Portraits and other iconography are of primary importance in documenting the history of the dance. Representations of dancers, either portraits or action studies, are a strong feature of the Dance Collection. The largest group of portrait material consists of photographs. American dancers are well represented through the gifts of collections on Isadora Duncan, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Martha Graham, and others. The magnificent group of 500 photographs of Waslaw Nijinsky includes many of the dancers who performed with him. Other gifts document the careers of the ballerinas Alicia Markova and Galina Ulanova. The Cia Fornaroli collection is particularly rich in prints of Fanny Cerito, Marie Taglioni, and other nineteenth-century dancers.

The large vertical file in the collection contains much portrait material in halftone illustrations, supplemented by the many scrapbooks and clipping files which have come to the collection as gifts. The computer-generated book catalog of the collection (see page 151) incorporates a large number of cross-references of assistance in locating portraits.

Music Division

There is an unusually strong collection of portraits in the Special Collections Reading Room of the Music Division. The entire group numbers some 20,000 pieces and includes engravings, lithographs, water colors, tracings, photographs, and halftones; it is international in scope and features portraits of violinists, opera singers, and a number of composers and performers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in contemporary prints. The Muller portrait collection includes a group of portraits of Nicoḷ Paganini which are of great interest.3

Two card files in the Special Collections Reading Room involve portraits. The General Iconography File is an alphabetical index by subject of prints, photographs, and other pictorial material in the Reading Room. The Muller Portrait Index provides reference to the Joseph Muller collection of musicians' portraits, giving subject, birth and death dates, engraver's name, and similar information. A Portrait Index refers to portraits in many sources both in the Music Division and in other parts of the library. The cards are arranged alphabetically by name of the subject of the portrait. This is a source file which does not duplicate the General Iconography File of the Special Collections Reading Room.

Theatre Collection

The majority of theatrical portraits currently acquired are maintained in files arranged alphabetically by the name of actor, theatre, or production, with some cross-referencing; nonbook material pertaining to the stage or motion pictures often contains portraits. All such materials in the Theatre Collection are cataloged by name of the performer, with references to the productions for which there are portraits available. The clipping files of the Theatre Collection also contain many portraits.

A number of the special collections of the Theatre Collection have strong portrait holdings. The Hiram Stead collection includes a vast file of portraits from the British theatre between 1672 and 1932. The Robinson Locke collection of drama scrapbooks documents the American stage

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from 1870 to 1920 and is arranged by actor rather than production; included are large photographs with autographs of theatrical personalities such as Maude Adams, Lillian Russell, and Geraldine Farrar.

The Universal Pictures gift of its books of movie stills, which began in 1935, covers almost all the films made since the beginning of that studio. An excellent collection of stills from the earliest period of motion pictures documents the productions of German, Russian, and American producers; this was formed by the Picture Collection of the Branch Libraries and subsequently transferred to the Theatre Collection. A Personalities index (for staff use) indicates the source of portraits of movie personalities by cross-references to the movies in which they appeared. The collection is organized generally on the principle of a newspaper morgue; although certain items are indexed for quick finding, the vast majority of material must be sought in the picture folders.

The Carl Van Vechten gift contains several hundred photographs of figures in the American theatre during the second quarter of the twentieth century. A notable special collection consists of photographs and negatives made by Mrs. Florence Vandamm of more than 1,200 stage productions between 1920 and 1962.

Picture Collection of the Branch Libraries

The holdings of this unit of the Branch Libraries in the Central Building include over 300,000 portraits from the sixteenth century to the present. All types of reproduction are found, from woodcuts, engravings, and lithographs to halftones and photographs. The materials have been extracted from books, journals, and periodicals; there are also separate prints and photographs. The collection is arranged in folders alphabetically by name of sitter. If the material has been clipped, the source is indicated by a symbol on the picture mounting. Readers may check out materials from this circulating collection (there is only limited public working space).