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Collection Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives

Classification Scheme Used in the Reading Room

After the FSA-OWI photographic prints were microfilmed in LOTs, they were re-sorted and grouped according to geographic region. Paul Vanderbilt devised the arrangement for the photographic prints that would eventually result in the Prints and Photographs Division's FSA-OWI Reading Room File. He established the following geographical divisions: B--Alaska and Canada; D-- Northeastern states; E--Southern states; F--Midwestern states; G--Northwestern states; H-- Southwestern states; J--Farwestern states; and K--Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There is also a C subdivision for the United States in general, which encompasses a variety of topics, 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.

Within each geographic region, the photographs are arranged according to a subject classification scheme devised by Vanderbilt. 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 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. Apparently, Vanderbilt planned to incorporate images from other sources besides the FSA-OWI collection into the vast "browsing" file that resulted when the images were arranged in the classified arrangement, but this plan was never implemented.

Looking at the FSA-OWI images in their classified arrangement enables researchers to browse specific pictorial subject matter and to perceive similarities and differences in how the same subject was treated by different photographers, in different places, at different times. For example, a researcher interested in foodways in the West could browse in the "J" (Far West) section of the file under the classification number "454" (Eating) and see, in quick succession: a Dorothea Lange photograph of a dust bowl refugee preparing a meal over a campfire along a California highway in 1937; a 1941 Russell Lee photograph showing eight Mexican children being served tortillas and corn flakes in San Diego, California; and another Lee photograph of Japanese-Americans eating supper in Nyssa, Oregon in July 1942.

Vanderbilt's major subject classes in the file are:

  • 14 – The Land--the background of civilization
  • 2 – 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
  • 52 – Transportation
  • 53-65 – Work--the economic basis of survival
  • 66-69 – Organized society--for security, justice, regulation, and assistance
  • 7 – War
  • 8-83 – Medicine and Health
  • 86-88 – Intellectual and Creative Activity
  • 89-94 – Social and Personal Activity
  • 96 – Alphabetical Section (for subjects not adequately covered above but better arranged in alphabetical order under subject headings)

Each of these major subject classes are subdivided into smaller subclasses (although not every subclass appears in every geographical division). For example, Class 4, Homes and Living Conditions, includes subclass 448-46, which encompasses images relating to personal care and household activities. That sub-class is further broken down as:

  • 448 – Personal Cleanliness
  • 449 – Privies, Toilets
  • 45 – Housework
  • 4506 – Water Supply
  • 451 – Food Preparation
  • 4527 – Outdoor Oven (etc.)

In the future, researchers may be able to take advantage of the class numbers that are being incorporated, when available, into the catalog records for the FSA-OWI negatives. Searching by class numbers will enable researchers to locate images showing very similar subject matter.