Monday, September 26th, 2016...9:00 am

A picture is worth a thousand words

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423811256We have all heard it. If you think of googling it, by the way, don’t—nobody really knows who said it first. We have all said it. Ironically, even writers are fond of it. “The drawing shows me at one glance what might be spread over ten pages in a book,” says Evgenii Bazarov, the revolutionary-inclined youth of Ivan Turgenev’s novel, “Fathers and Sons,” to Anna Sergeevna Odintsov, a noble woman of considerable beauty and ability to make men fall in love with her. It is perhaps worth mentioning that in his case, the words come from the mouth of a nihilist and a cynic.

But say that to a cataloger and you are unlikely to get a favorable response—more like a severe glance and pursed lips. A thousand or not, words are the stuff cataloging is made of. And being neither cynics nor nihilists, in cataloging we believe in words. The question is what made us start using pictures in our cataloging?

For I have been doing exactly that. I am now attaching images to the short cataloging records for costume and set designs in the Harvard Theatre Collection. The records are short out of necessity: our holdings are vast, and the goal is to provide access to as many items as possible, and quickly. So, we are adding images—“pictures”—to the description, in the hope that they will tell researchers more than words in a brief record can.

This project is part of a larger initiative to add reference scans to HOLLIS records at the point of cataloging. At Houghton, we’re scanning not only visual material, but also annotations, broadsides, sheet music, book covers, and tables of contents.capture1

Next time you search HOLLIS+, look for an image thumbnail in the results list. Open one of these catalog records and scroll down to see the linked image(s). Clicking on an image will enlarge it further (unless the image is copyrighted). I use an iPhone 6 with minimal editing, so the iPhone is now officially a cataloging tool.  

Here are just a few examples of recently cataloged designs:

Clemenza di Tito and Nozze di Figarro set designs, circa 1780
Ida Rubinstein dans Cléopâtre: drawings, 1921
Walkyrie lighting set design, circa 1925

Irina Klyagin, Rothschild Project Archivist, contributed this post.


  • Dating by “dealer” is completely in error. Nozze di Figaro did not receive its premiere until 1786; nor did it appear in Prague until later that year. It would be nice if the record can be corrected.

  • Thank you for your comment, and for noticing the lack of precision in dating.

    Dates for designs do not always correspond with the dates of performances. However, in this case I believe you are right, and it is unlikely that Platzer was designing sets several years before Nozze was finished.
    The record will be corrected.

  • Pictures are extremely important for any catalog. With visual media gaining popularity, its just pictures DO speak more than words – that and a few apt “words with a punch” = perfect catalog.

  • I never thought an iPhone could be used for a cataloging tool. Very creative! Yes, pictures are worth a thousand words but sometimes it is fun imagining the visuals based on the description. (the old fashioned way)