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Collection Posters: WPA Posters

Technical Information

Each poster in the WPA collection has been copied onto slide film to facilitate photographic reproduction orders and to reduce handling of the posters themselves. The slides were scanned to provide digital images for this online collection.

About one-third of the slides were digitized in the early 1990s to create an analog videodisc which was used as a reference aid in the Prints and Photographs Division. These slides were first photographed onto an intermediate negative film and then digitized to approximately 1500 pixels in the long dimension. For these posters, a thumbnail image, a 640-pixel JPEG format image, and the uncompressed archival image are available for viewing and downloading.

The remaining slides were digitized to approximately 4000 pixels in the long dimension by JJT, Inc. of Austin, Texas in the summer of 2000. Because these uncompressed archival images are so much larger, an additional 1024-pixel JPEG format image is available to facilitate display of small details.

Specifications For This Collection

Uncompressed Archival Images

Spatial resolution:
Approximately 1500 or 4000 pixels on the long side with the short side scaled in proportion.
Tonal (pixel depth) resolution:
24 bits per pixel (RGB color).
Image enhancement:
File format:
Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) ver. 6.0.

Compressed Service Images

Spatial resolution:
About 640 pixels on the long side with the short side scaled in proportion. An additional 1024-pixel set of service images exists for some of the collection.
Tonal (pixel depth) resolution:
24 bits per pixel.
Image enhancement:
Mild sharpening.
File format:
JFIF (JPEG File Interchange Format).
JPEG at a quality setting that yields an average compression of 15:1 for the 640-pixel images. Compression is approximately 8:1 for the 1024-pixel images.

Thumbnail Images

Spatial resolution:
About 150 pixels on the long side with the short side scaled in proportion.
Tonal (pixel depth) resolution:
8 bits per pixel; palettes optimized (adaptive palettes) for each image.
Image enhancement:
File formats:
Archived copy: TIFF--Tagged Image File Format
Online copy: GIF--Graphics Interchange Format
Archived copy: Uncompressed.
Online copy: Compression native to the GIF format.

Describing the Collection

Most of the Prints and Photographs Division's cataloging is considered "minimal level," because information is often limited to what is provided with the picture rather than what could be learned by fully researching the image. The following comments explain the general cataloging guidelines followed by the Prints and Photographs Division, as well as some specific guidelines related to cataloging the WPA Poster Collection. They also point out which catalog record information is most useful for citing pictorial materials in research notes or publications. Since the original information accompanying a picture can be inaccurate, the Division is always glad to hear from researchers who have additional or better information.

The records for a single collection, such as the WPA Poster Collection, might not use each of the fields or have all of the indexing features described here. For general information about cataloging pictorial materials, see the Visual Materials: Processing & Cataloging Bibliography (

Cataloging the WPA Posters: Almost all of the information provided in the catalog records came from the original posters or from Christopher DeNoon's Posters of the WPA (Los Angeles: Wheatly Press, c1987). Dates, when not provided or inferred through textual information, were given as a range reflecting the time period of the WPA program, for example [between 1935 and 1943]. When month/day dates were given on the poster, a perpetual calendar was used to determine the year the event occurred.

Card Number

The control number, or card number, for each catalog record is a unique identification number. It can be used to do a quick number search when you want to see a specific record without repeating a long keyword or subject search. However, only some online catalogs provide an index by this number.

Call Number

This string of letters and numbers is used to locate the original material at the Library of Congress. Although P&P has a unique system of call number locations (and the patterns vary from filing series to filing series), the call number is still a useful reference citation. The call number is comprised of two elements, a classification scheme, unique to P&P, and a cutter number. In the call number examples below, the classification scheme is represented by the following elements: POS - WPA - NY and POS - WPA - NJ. The cutter number is essentially a code comprised of the combination of letters (from artist name or title) and numbers. The elements of the cutter number are devised from tables established by Charles A. Cutter to facilitate the alphabetical arrangement of materials, with the same classification number, on library shelves.

Call numbers for the WPA posters are based on the state represented by the poster and whether the poster could be attributed to an artist (the cutter number is then based on the artist's last name) or whether the artist was anonymous (in this case, the anonymous artist is represented by .01 and the cutter number is then based on the first letter of the title). These two conventions are represented as follows:

  • POS - WPA - NY .h255, no. 1
  • POS - WPA - NJ .01 .B565, no. 1


When the name of an artist, photographer, architect, printmaker, or other image creator is known, only one form of the name is used, so that it is possible to retrieve all works by one creator under a single spelling or form of the name. If the form of the name has been established in the Library of Congress Name Authority File, that is the form used. Birth and death dates are included only when such information is readily available and the form of the name has not already been established in the LCNAF. If the Library of Congress form of the name was established while the creator was still alive, a death date is not usually added when the creator dies. It is expensive to update such information, and the name is already uniquely identified in the catalog.

The absence of a creator's name indicates that the creator is anonymous, unidentified, or unknown. Many of the WPA posters are unsigned.

After the name, a term is given identifying the relationship(s) between the name and the work being cataloged. For example, architect, artist, copyright claimant, photographer, or publisher.


A title is transcribed from the original picture, or from a photographer's logbook or negative jacket. If the picture carries no caption a title is devised from another source and displayed in brackets. Devised titles are written by Library staff, or they might come from a published book illustration or a former owner.

The abbreviations "[sic]" and "[i.e.]" indicate erroneous spellings or information in transcribed titles. The correct information is provided as needed in the title or a note.

For the WPA Poster collection, the title was transcribed from the original poster. In poster cataloging, as with broadsides, the title is often composed and printed in a variety of type faces and sizes; the important elements intended to catch the viewer's eye from a distance, with the full title only becoming clear as one approaches the poster for closer scrutiny.


The date refers to the year(s) when the image being cataloged was created, not the time period depicted in the picture.

The date is transcribed when such information appears with the picture. It is difficult to assign a specific year to undated prints and photographs. The catalogers look for clues such as: styles of fashion shown in the image, the creator's life dates, or type of physical media. Often, only a span of years or decades can be estimated, and such dates are shown in brackets, for example, [between 1900 and 1930].

When the single letter "c" appears before a date, it indicates the year in which an image was deposited for copyright. Since the WPA posters were issued by a government agency they were not eligible to be copyrighted.

The abbreviation "ca." means "circa" and indicates a date that is approximate; for the WPA poster cataloging, that approximation was limited to a span of within three years.


The physical properties of the original work are described by listing a readily recognized broad category, such as photograph, drawing, or print, followed by a more specific designation, such as daguerreotype, charcoal, or aquatint. This is determined by examining the work. The description is also a reminder that the physical characteristics of the original work are quite different from a digital reproduction on a computer screen.

The quantity of material is also stated, although most records usually describe only a single item. Some records, however, describe tens or hundreds of items, and it is helpful to know the size of each work to understand the specificity of the information in the catalog record.

The dimensions of a work are rarely provided in minimal-level cataloging. Panoramic photographs, however, include dimensions, which are rounded off to the nearest half inch and measure the image area exclusive of borders and mounts.


The genre and physical characteristics of the original work are listed as plural index terms. Examples include: Broadsides, Engravings, Group portraits, Lithographs--Color, Paintings--Reproductions, Political posters, Portrait photographs, Stereographs, and Woodcuts.

These headings are sometimes subdivided by the nationality, place, or decade in which the work was created. Other subdivisions indicate if the work is in color or is a reproduction of another medium. The terms come from the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials II: Genre and Physical Characteristic Terms.

Reproduction Number

This alpha-numeric code identifies existing black-and-white and color negatives, slides, or transparencies from which prints, transparencies, and other photographic reproductions can be ordered. This number is also the most useful (and shortest) reference citation to include with any subsequent publication of the image.

A qualifying phrase identifies the type of reproduction (e.g., color transparency) and points out which reproductions are only details or cropped versions of the original works. This information can help you decide which copy you want to reproduce.

The abbreviation "b&w" stands for black-and-white.

Digital ID

The identification number for the digital file begins with a word or phrase that explains the source used to create the digital image, for example, the "original" work or a "b&w copy film neg." The Library's digital images are often created by scanning one or more of the copy negatives, slides, or transparencies listed in the Reproduction Number field.


Many types of notes are written to explain reproduction restrictions, sources of devised dates and titles, the name of the collection to which the work belongs, citations to published versions, and other aspects of the work. A subject description is sometimes written if a title is not self-explanatory. With minimal-level cataloging, some types of notes are omitted, for example, acquisition source is rarely provided.

Related Names

When multiple people or corporate bodies contribute to a work, their names can be listed as related, or added, entries. When the nature of the contribution can be specified, a relator term, such as client, copyright claimant, interior designer, or sculptor, is added after the name.

Related names associated with the WPA posters represent the issuing or sponsoring agency. The Federal Art Project sponsored most of the posters, others were sponsored by the Federal Music Project, or one of several Federal Theatre Projects established in cities throughout the nation.


The name of the institution and division that have custody of the original work. This information can help you locate or cite the original.


The title of the collection associates each item with its source and is useful to include in bibliographic citations. Some items are in more than one collection, because they are associated with both a format-based collection (e.g., Daguerreotype Collection) and a donor-based collection (e.g., Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection). Other items lack a formal collection title heading because they are in collections that have not yet been fully cataloged.

The WPA poster collection name embodies both the format-based and the donor-based elements:

Work Projects Administration Poster Collection (Library of Congress)


Catalogers assign index terms that describe what the image shows as well as what the image is about. For example, a political cartoon depicting a basketball game in which the players are dribbling a globe is "of" basketball and "about" international relations. Most of the topical terms come from the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials I: Subject Terms. The proper noun headings come from the Library of Congress Name Authority File and from the Library of Congress Subject Headings. Examples include: Adult education; Art exhibitions; Children's art; Conservation of natural resources; Freedom of speech; Health care; Housing; Music festivals; Prenatal care; Printmaking; Safety; State parks & reserves; Theatrical productions; Tourist trade; Transportation; War work.

Some collections have only preliminary index headings, and do not use standard vocabulary sources like the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials. For example, the Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record uses an uncontrolled indexing vocabulary where different terms, such as "Car dealership" and "Auto dealership," are sometimes used for the same subject, because the material being cataloged used those different terms. The Gottscho-Schleisner Collection headings focus on terms for types of structures, for example, "Automobile dealerships" and use few proper names for subjects such as buildings. (The title includes an informal building or project name taken from the photographer's logbook.)

Terms are sometimes subdivided by place and date of depiction. In other cases, the place names are expressed as hierarchical geographic "strings" to allow keyword access to names of countries and states as well as counties and cities. For example, "Canada--British Columbia--Vancouver" or "United States--Maryland- -Baltimore."

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