Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection
Subject Index: Introduction
When people need pictures about life in the United States during the Great Depression and World War II, they frequently find fascinating photographs in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection.
This subject index improves online access to the FSA/OWI photographs by enabling browsing using the subjects assigned in the 1940s, when the vast FSA/OWI collection was organized. It makes it possible to view FSA/OWI photographs by such broad topics as “manufacturing“ and such specific topics as “boot making,” even if those words do not appear in the original captions. Viewing the images by subject category also helps researchers compare how various photographers, in different places, at different times conveyed similar subject matter.
To facilitate searching for images, the subject index is presented here in two arrangements:
- Classification numbers, which group photographs with related subject matter together, even if their subjects would be widely separated alphabetically (e.g., grouped together in the Agriculture category are photos relating to plowing and to fertilizing). This grouping by classification number is how the printed photos are organized in the physical FSA/OWI file in the Prints & Photographs Division Reading Room. (The photos are still in file cabinets as shown in the photo above of “picture selection.”).
- Alphabetical by subject words from the heading cards in the FSA/OWI file, with the corresponding classification number. This enables one to look for a particular subject word and find the photos that were assigned the classification number.
The designation of the categories and the words used to describe them are products of their era and have not been altered for this presentation.
In addition to enhancing access, the structure of the subject classification scheme and its application to a body of more than 80,000 photographic prints in the period when the photographs were made are also worthy of study. This web page offers notes about the origin, application, and anomalies of the scheme and the access it provides to the photographs.
Background and Application of the Classification Scheme
The organization of the FSA/OWI photographic prints into their present arrangement began when the collection was still at the Office of War Information. Roy Stryker, head of the photo unit, hired Paul Vanderbilt to organize the file. Vanderbilt devised the arrangement with an eye to facilitating cross-regional and cross-cultural comparisons by subject matter, using an alpha-numeric classification system to group images first by geographical location depicted and then by subject matter. Vanderbilt accompanied the file when the Office of War Information transferred it to the Library of Congress starting in 1944.
The FSA/OWI photographic prints continue to be filed in the arrangement Vanderbilt devised. He apparently planned to incorporate images from other sources, but the division did not use the classification scheme for other collections. Generally, subject access to other collections, regardless of media or type of storage, is through standardized subject terms, including terms drawn from the Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials.
Primary Arrangement of the Reading Room File: Geographical
Although Vanderbilt established the classification scheme to facilitate subject browsing of the photographs, his conception relied on geography as the initial principle of arrangement. He devised the following geographic categories, some of which likely corresponded to the regional breakdown of the FSA offices:
B--Alaska and Canada
- C-- United States in general, including images used for FSA filmstrips, pictures of FSA exhibit panels, and photographs of clippings of newspaper and magazine articles that used FSA-OWI materials. There are also images of military training and equipment.
- D-- Northeastern states (CT, DC, DE, ME, MD, MS, NH, NJ, NY, PA, RI, VT, WV)
- E--Southern states (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA)
- F--Midwestern states (IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, OH, WI)
- G--Northwestern states (CO, ID, KS, MT, NE, ND, SD, UT, WY)
- H-- Southwestern states (AZ, NM, OK, TX)
- J—Far Western states (CA, NV, OR, WA)
- K--Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
In accordance with his ambitious plan to incorporate other photographs into the file, Vanderbilt proposed additional categories for regions around the world, with B-L representing the western hemisphere and Atlantic Ocean, M-Z the eastern hemisphere and the Pacific. Those additional categories were never used.
Secondary Arrangement of the Reading Room File: Decimal Subject Classification Numbers
Within each geographic region, the photographs are arranged according to subject classification numbers. The classification scheme is a "decimal" classification scheme, similar in principle to the Dewey Decimal classification scheme used to arrange books in many libraries: single digits or pairs of digits stand for broad subject areas, and longer numbers starting with those digits generally represent sub-sets of that subject area. Vanderbilt's classification scheme, however, emphasizes the kinds of subjects that appear in pictures--particularly the FSA/OWI pictures.
FSA/OWI Reading Room File drawer for G35-G3784
Selecting from FSA/OWI Reading Room File section G368 - "Children and animals". Baby Beede with kitten. Western Slope Farms, Colorado. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1939.
Unlike the Dewey Decimal classification, where each numerical category represents an area of knowledge (e.g., numbers in the 700s are for "the arts"), Vanderbilt does not seem to have started by isolating major subject classes under sequential numbers, 1-9. Rather, the predominance and depth of treatment of the respective subjects within the body of photographs seems to have dictated how many digits the classification scheme devotes to each. Some subjects span initial digits, as for instance "work" spans . 53-.65.
Based on the initial pages of an undated, 161-page manuscript in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room reference file that outlines the classification scheme, the major categories, with scope notes were:
|.14-.18||The Land - the background of civilization|
|.2-.278 || Cities and Towns - as background|
|.3 || People--as such--without emphasis, excepting in the case of children, on their activity|
|.4 || Homes and Living Conditions|
|.5-.526 || Transportation|
|.53-.65|| Work - the economic basis for survival|
|.66-.69 || Organized society--for security, justice, regulation, and assistance|
|.7|| War [the manuscript lists this as .7-.72, but numbers up to .775 are indented under "War"]|
|.8-.83 || Medicine, health, first aid, war casualties, hospitals, dentistry, public health, sanitation, safety|
|.84-.85||Religion, prayer, churches, clergy, revival meetings, ceremonies, education, missionaries|
|.86-.88 || Intellectual and creative activity, science (as distinct from technology), colleges and universities, museums, records, surveys, documentary work, journalism, editorial work, writing, representative and decorative arts|
|.89-.91|| Social and Personal Activity [the manuscript lists this as .89-.905, but numbers up to .92 are indented under "Social and Personal Activity"]|
|.92-.93 || Recreation, relaxation, outdoor life, sports, athletic contests, indoor games, gambling|
|.94 ||Dissipation and crime|
|.96 || Alphabetical Section (for subjects not adequately covered above but better arranged in alphabetical order under subject headings)|
There are gaps in the decimal numbering, presumably where Vanderbilt was leaving room for additional subdivisions of a subject.
The Classification Scheme: Anomalies in Hierarchy and Specificity
The classification scheme is not strictly hierarchical. Longer numbers that begin with the same digits as shorter numbers are often related, but are not sub-sets of the shorter number. The goal seems to have been to bring images with related subject matter into close proximity, rather than to lead from broader to narrower subjects.
- .505 Animal Drawn Vehicles
- .5052 Riding Horses [not a type of vehicle]
- .506 Oxen
- .922 Reading
- .9228 Outdoor life [not all outdoor life takes place in the context of reading!]
Although Vanderbilt’s classification scheme was numerical, he allowed for alphabetical arrangement near the end of the scheme, where category .96 represents "Subjects not adequately covered above, but better arranged in alphabetical order under subject headings." The headings include such categories as:
- .9623 Bells
- .96928 Vachon photos [i.e., selected photos by John Vachon that were not classified by subject matter]
The classification scheme sometimes includes specified, named examples of the phenomenon represented by the class number without distinguishing the specific locations. For example, .596055 is the number assigned to both Greendale, Wisconsin, and Greenhills, Ohio--both locations where photographs show "Construction of Small Houses" (.596).
The definition of the categories that make up the classification scheme and the application of the scheme to particular photographs was necessarily a subjective process. For instance, it is unclear whether there are obvious visual markers that define category ".322 Men in their Prime."
Multiple staff attempting to classify photographs that inevitably feature more than one subject also faced a challenge in applying the classification numbers consistently. The manuscript document with scope notes for many classification numbers offers principles that likely guided staff as they assigned classification numbers. The scope note for .32 Men (and .33 Women) remarks: "In accordance with our general principle, we have judged a person's age according to his or her appearance except in those cases where the caption provided specific information. The picture of a prematurely-aged working woman may thus be filed under an age group beyond her actual - but unknown - age." As this comment suggests, and people who have regularly used the file have observed, the caption for the photograph is often the strongest indicator of the classification number under which the print was filed, even though each image can reasonably relate to multiple subjects.
Unpublished typescript scope notes for application of FSA/OWI classification scheme (title page)
Unpublished typescript scope notes for application of FSA/OWI classification scheme (p. 2 - summary of the classification scheme)
Unpublished typescript scope notes for application of FSA/OWI classification scheme (p. 51 - scope note for "Individual Children")
In the 1940s, staff also made choices in setting up the physical arrangement of the photographs, as distinct from the classification numbers they assigned to the images. Staff did not consistently file the photographs by the specific number they assigned to the images if the contents of the numeric category were sparse. In some regions photos are grouped in a broader category. For example, the decimal classification number for "license plates" is .5104. The photographs with that designation are filed in the ".5104" section in the Northeast and Midwest regions. But the sole photo that was assigned number .5104 in the Far West region is interfiled with .51 (Automobiles).
Access to the Images by Class Number in an Online Environment
Caption card for FSA negative--does not include the classification information for the photographic print.
When digital technology made it possible to scan and share more widely images from the FSA/OWI Collection, the Library of Congress elected to scan the negatives, rather than the photographic prints. Digitizing the negatives reduced wear and tear on unique items that are subject to deterioration, and it also enabled viewing of an additional 95,000 photographs taken by FSA/OWI photographers but never printed for the agencies’ files. The descriptive information for the printed negatives, however, did not systematically include the geographic letters and classification numbers under which the corresponding prints had been filed.
Volunteers and staff have worked for many years to capture the geographic designation and classification number from the prints and add them to the online descriptions of the negatives. At this point, the location/subject classification number for the majority of prints has been recorded in the descriptions of the negatives, but the work is ongoing. Moreover, images that were never printed and, therefore, never assigned a classification number, are not retrieved through the online access by classification number. (For information on viewing unprinted negatives, see "Finding Unprinted FSA/OWI Negatives--It's Easier Now!")
Even in an online, keyword search environment, it can be challenging to locate where in the classification scheme particular subjects may appear. Each numerical entry in the classification scheme is represented by its corresponding topic in the alphabetical section of the subject index. In that section, the same classification number may appear multiple times under synonyms or inverted headings; for example: .576 is listed under both "Oil Wells, Petroleum" and "Petroleum, Oil Wells."
In linking to the online records, photographs grouped under a particular class number are merged into a single search result, regardless of region. It is possible, however, to search the online catalog for a single region and class number by entering in the online catalog the alphanumeric designation in quote marks, for example: "J 454" will retrieve images relating to eating taken in the states of the Far West. To narrow down the geographic coverage still further, add the state name to the classification number. For example, to see eating in Oregon, search for: "J 454" and Oregon.
In one way, this online subject index offers more precision than does the physical browsing of the file. The online description gives the classification number recorded on the back of the print, even if the print is interfiled with prints assigned to a broader category in some regions (see notes above about the reading room file).
Adams, Elizabeth L., and Marion Lambert. "The Photographic Section of the Library of Congress." Library Journal 71 (1 September 1946): 1081-1087.
"Appendix: The FSA-OWI Collection." In Documenting America, edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan, 330-342. Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1988.
"Background and Scope of the Collection," FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
Trachtenberg, Alan. "From Image to Story: Reading the File." In Documenting America, edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan, 43-73. Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1988.