Calculated for the astonishment of the world

It’s 3pm, you’re hitting a lull, and you need that special something to get you to the finish line. You can’t drink coffee in the afternoon anymore, so it’s time to dig out some amazing pictures!

But how to find them? Let past and present Library experts guide you through the fuzzy ground between browsing and searching…

Chelsea Hughes

NLNZ alumni and current library guru in Melbourne, tweeting from @tchelseat.

WWTCD? What would the cataloguer do?

I was a cataloguing librarian for 5+ years, so I try to think like one when I'm searching digitised collections databases, photographic collections in particular.

You have to understand that a cataloguer's job is to be as descriptive and objective as possible. It makes sense for them to take this approach, but it also makes it bloody difficult to find weird and wonderful stuff because the entire point is for them to NOT place judgement on their description.

So think descriptive but not subjective. Instead of 'sleepy' use 'asleep'. Instead of 'happy' use 'smiling' or 'laughing'.

Be aware that cataloguers are also likely to be quite conservative in their descriptions. While there may be naked men in the photo, they may not note such things, making it very difficult to find all the images of naked men in a particular collection.(Grrrr!)

As you become more familiar with the set of images you're searching, you'll find shortcuts to these hidden gems.

You can, of course, flip this advice around if you're searching full-text newspaper databases like Papers Past. Most of the fun stuff from old newspapers comes from articles that are VERY subjective and judgmental. A search in Papers Past for the phrase 'evil woman' yields 170 results!

Action words

Another good tip: Try action words in a search. They usually yield a few odd gems. For example, a search on the term lick* (a truncated search) found me this wonderful image of a girl licking the belt on an escalator.

Girl and escalator, 1972 Girl and escalator, 1972. Ref: PADL-000106-29.

Be random

Somedays I'll pick a random search term and browse the results. It's a bit like lucky dip, and can easily bring up something unexpected.

Details of images of raspberries, a cat, and a giant Christmas crackerFrozen, lost, cracker, taking me to raspberries, cats, and general ridiculousness. L-R: 1/2-208822-F, EP/1959/1479-F, 114/402/08-G.

Look for the unidentified

When a cataloguer doesn't know a person or place, they describe them as 'unidentified'. Search using the term 'unidentified', and you'll find a goldmine of strange and wonderful images. Here are a few I find amusing:

Details of unidentified subjects, an infant, a spaniel, and a young boyL-R: Unidentified infant (1/4-007527-G), spaniel (WA-25136-G), and boy (1/4-007587-G).

Courtney Johnston

Former NLNZ tweeter, still tweeting from @auchmill.

Go big or go home

Size words are one of my secret powers. 'Small', 'big', and 'large' all bring back things that deserved an adjective.

Details of images that show small, big, and large objectsL-R: Small ford van (1/2-212267-F), Big Tree tanker (WA-25921-F), large broach (1/2-211103-F).

Objects are also good – biscuits, toys, shoes – as are, strangely, particular fruit and vegetables.


What I love most is when you find an image you like and pluck a term or phrase from its description that leads you to treasures:

Details of Mrs Sullivan, Miss Moses, and Miss Prendergast"Softly draped” L-R: Mrs Sullivan, Miss Moses, and Miss Prendergast.

Details of nylon stocking, high heeled shoes, sheer stockings“Feet/shoe/legs modelling” L-R: Nylon stocking, high heeled shoes, sheer stockings.

Details of Unidentified man, Mr Jenkins, Hanson Group“Flower in the button hole” L-R: Unidentified man, Mr Jenkins, Hanson Group.

Details of how to use a blowgun, Taranaki ironsands, a wrestling moveSimply, “demonstrating” L-R: How to use a blowgun, Taranaki ironsands, a wrestling move.

Amy Joseph

Senior Collection Management Librarian at NLNZ, tweets from @AmyJoseph_NZ.

Finding something great by letting it find you

I'm a fan of serendipity. It pays to have a skim through search results that don't seem relevent to your query – it may not be what you're trying to find, but it could be interesting!

A quick keyword search to check if we were collecting a perfectly innocent serial title saw me tumbling into a world of Adultery, seduction and the sale of wives .

The fundamentals really help too – when you do find something you like, take a look at the attached subject headings and structured vocabulary terms, as they might open up new paths.

Look at the subject headings on record pages, and the related topics on your search results, which both give you interesting sideways steps through the collections.

By Lucy Schrader

Lucy is your friendly neighbourhood online editor.

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