Now Available on Video: “Learning to Look: The Interdisciplinary Value of Historical Visual Culture”

As Director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society, Nan Wolverton is a master at studying images, looking beyond what is readily apparent to uncover details that give fresh insight to a point in time or an aspect of society.

Speaking at a Readex breakfast event during the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in Chicago, Wolverton demonstrated her expertise, analyzing newspaper advertisements, photographs, broadsides, political cartoons, and even sheet music. She pointed out details easily overlooked—what the tablecloth in a 19th-century breakfast scene says about America’s place in the global economy, what a walking stick reveals about a former slave’s position, and why the image of a mental institution came to be stamped on dinner plates. She encouraged librarians, faculty, and students to look more deeply and use visuals to enhance their own teaching and research.

“The visual is overlooked as an important source of evidence,” Wolverton said. “An image can enhance the written record but it also can teach us something significant about which the written record can be silent or ambiguous.”

Wolverton explained how she uses images in her American Studies courses at Smith College as a way to introduce students to themes and references they may not otherwise understand, like how the “striped pig” relates to alcohol:  

Going beyond engravings and lithographs, Wolverton discussed how ephemera, including envelopes, receipts, and tickets – “the stuff that gets thrown away” – offers valuable information. Images also help ensure items from the past are not lost from our collective cultural memory.

Wolverton made the audience laugh with her favorite explanation for a “lost” item:

To explore the deeper meaning held within many more eighteenth- and nineteenth-century prints, newspapers, photographs, broadsides, advertisements, and political cartoons, view Wolverton’s full talk here. Please share this video with colleagues interested in “learning to look.”

We welcome your comments, and we hope to see you at a future Readex presentation at an ALA conference. For invitations to upcoming presentations, please sign up to receive “Special Offers & Invitations” by email from Readex.

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