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: