Teaching with Archives

A Fashionable Melange of English Words, Kamekichi Tsunajima, 1887 (source).

At the AIGA Design Educators Community conference this June, I’m facilitating a workshop on using digital humanities resources to teach global design history. It can be tricky to find English-language, open-access sources that offer both high-quality reproductions and useful context for images that aren’t in your typical survey textbook. Though it’s not usually what I post about here, I’d like to share a few of the resources I use in both the studio and the design history classroom. Many sources mentioned here have decent-to-excellent coverage of the usual kinds of images from western Europe and North America that get covered in design history surveys; I make note of which additional global locations I’ve had good luck with at each source, if the archive’s name doesn’t make this information evident.

The Public Domain Review is a not-for-profit Open Knowledge project that collects and reviews (among other things) images that are in the public domain. In addition to showing images and providing introductory information about their production and meaning, the site links to the organizations and archives that house the originals and/or host the digital copies. I’ve found some unusual Chinese and Japanese sources here, and this is an excellent site for sourcing images to use in studio design projects that explore historical subject matter, since everything is in the public domain.

Monoskop is a collaborative wiki that focuses on arts and humanities. Their digital collection of Avant Garde magazines is especially fabulous, and it includes full runs of early Modernist publications from Japan, eastern Europe, and Central/South America, as well as all of the familiar publications from France, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, and Italy. Some scans are housed on-site, like the amazing Mavo from Japan; other publications are viewed via links to repositories like the Asia Art Archive or Biblioteca Brasiliana.

The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has thousands of very high-resolution, mostly public-domain geographical images. In addition to maps, this vast collection includes a surprising number of images graphic designers would call “infographics,” mostly from atlases. The collection is highly searchable (by maker, date, location, printing method) and the metadata is generally excellent. Though the collection is heavy on western European and North American cartographers, there’s growing representation for other geographical regions, particularly in the twentieth century.

The Qatar Digital Library is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar National Library, and it includes not only images but also audio, video, and featured articles. While most of the digital images can also been seen on the BL site, the QDL site makes it much easier to focus a search on the Persian Gulf region. The object descriptions are sometimes longer and more useful than those you’d get through a typical BL catalog search; they’re also often written by librarians and curators at the QNL. There’s good representation for illuminated manuscripts and maps, and some coverage for commercial illustration, newspapers, and printed books.

The Endangered Archives project at the British Library provides online access to physically endangered archival material from around the world. The interface sorts the materials into geographic regions: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Item descriptions for the contents within individual projects are concise and easy to locate; there aren’t image thumbnails, which makes it time-consuming to browse visually. It’s worth the effort, though. The collection is incredibly diverse, ranging from seventeenth century Islamic manuscripts made in Ethiopia to magazines from Mongolia in the 1990s.

50 Watts is an excellent blog about book design and illustration. It’s browsable by location, date, and subject. Subjects range from textbook covers in 1920s Japan to mid-century Guatemalan illustration for children and information about each source is (usually) very specific and complete.

Japan’s National Diet Library digital collection includes books, periodicals, rare books and manuscripts, and various multi-media items (films, sound recordings). It’s searchable in English, though sometimes it can be difficult to find information beyond the basics of title/maker/date.


See Japan


Between the two world wars, the Japan Tourist Bureau invested significant resources in encouraging in-bound international tourism. In particular, the JTB wanted to attract American and British tourists to Japan, and to do this, they issued posters, maps, and guidebooks (like the 1926 guide to Japan pictured in the detail above). The designers of this promotional literature used a variety of visual strategies to make sure viewers would see Japan as both comfortably familiar and excitingly foreign. The images quoted both avant-garde Modernism and traditional Japanese visual arts. At the moment, I’m putting the finishing touches on a paper I’ll deliver at the College Art Association’s upcoming annual conference in February. I’m looking forward to getting feedback on this new-to-me area of research.  Though not pictured here, typography plays a significant role in this project, as well.


Colorful Letters


Today I spent time with William H. Page’s Specimens of Chromatic Wood Type, published in 1874 for use by Page & Company sales reps (catalog record here). Since every color had to be printed individually, producing the specimen was a labor-intensive task indeed. For readers who have seen the film “Type Face,” the Hamilton Company bought out Page & Company in 1891. This book is absolutely breath-taking and extremely rare. I’ve been saving it as a grand finale to my amazing time here at the Cary Collection, and it did not disappoint.



Improving Typography


This masthead is from a 1929 Monotype publication full of short articles about how to be a better typographer. First, of course, it’s essential to use a Monotype casting machine. But there are other ways to improve as a designer, too. Be sure to stay current with the printed samples Monotype mails out to its customers on a regular basis. These show the latest trends in advertising and publishing as demonstrated by expert “type-men.” And don’t forget that Monotype’s San Francisco branch office is licensed to distribute types by Continental Type Founders, importers of the finest European fonts from Old World foundries. American fonts simply aren’t as fresh and sophisticated, while European fonts will lend “enchantment” to your work.

Modernistic Marvels


The American type foundry Barnhart Bros. & Spindler may have been fairly short-lived (it was founded in 1873 and bought out by American Type Founders in 1911, though it remained in business under its own name another 22 years after ATF purchased it) but it published some beautiful specimen books. During the nineteenth century, most of these were stout volumes with hundreds of pages. But by the early 1920s, when this beauty was produced, BB&S was releasing slender booklets devoted to a single typeface or a small, thematic selection of faces. This detail is from the cover of one such booklet that showcased “Modernistic and Extraordinary Typefaces.” With names like Cubist Bold, Old Dutch, Japanet, and Bamboo, the faces were guaranteed to give contemporary ads that much-desired, of-the-moment edge.

Happily Ever After


In 1900, the newly-consolidated American Type Founders released a book of “embellishments and ornamentations for the printer and publisher,” among which was this splendid piece of design. (Curious readers can see the book’s catalog entry here.) Hidden among the hundreds of pages of sickeningly sweet cherubs, faithful fidos, fragrant flowers, and star-spangled banners, there are some wonderfully wry and sarcastic images like this one. I’ve had a great deal of fun imagining the back-story here; I’d like to think the princess, having glimpsed the end of the tale, is getting ready to pack her bags and escape a life of uncomfortable shoes and high-handed princes.

Colorful Ornament

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In 1928, Frederic Warde designed a book showcasing printer’s ornaments for Lanston Monotype of London (catalog record here). Warde used Monotype’s existing, and extensive, collection of “printer’s flowers” to compose decorative frames and patterns. Most of the book featured typography in combination with the various borders and flowers, with title pages figuring prominently in the display. But the last few pages were colored paper printed only with patterns designed from the ornaments. Their sole purpose was to be beautiful. Frederic Warde had been married to Beatrice, soon to be of “Printing Should Be Invisible” fame, during the first part of the decade. Fortunately, he did not heed her advice when designing his Printer’s Ornaments.