The San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection

Free and Equal Access

The San Francisco Public Libraries Historical Photograph Collection, is a true highlight of the Library. Located on the 6th floor, the collection consists of mainly photographs, but also holds works on paper, dating from 1850 to the present. The collection is housed and ran by the knowledgeable staff at the San Francisco History Center, and is the official archive of the City and County of San Francisco. In 1965 the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin –a daily newspaper dating from 1920s to 1965– donated over 1.5 million images from their photo morgue. Since then the collection has grown to over 2 million documents.

Christina Moretta, the curator of the collection, describes the mission of the collection as a “blend of free and equal access.” Anyone can view the physical collection or/and access the digital collection online, hence “free and equal access.” On a weekly basis 20-25 people come the physical location– the photo desk– to view the photographs from the archive. Due to the delicate nature of the photography, patrons are directed to access the database as a first stage in their research. The digital collection is accessible only through the SFPL’s website and not on the visible web, meaning their images do not show up in image searches.   According to Moretta this lack of a “visible web” presence limits access, and that other means of making individuals aware of the collection were needed. (Baynet, 2009) The San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) History Center, in connection with the Historical Photograph Collection,  have embraced Web 2.0 technologies to meet this mission of access.

The Collection

The project began in 1996 by digitizing the frequently requested images from the collection such as, The Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco neighborhoods, and local street views. When the project began the staff saved the archival scans at 100 DPI, then switched to 300 DPI, and now use a pixel array–dependent on factors such as size, condition of the photo or negative. Moretta said it best, “We try to keep the digital surrogate as close tothe original as possible.” SFPL has the core infrastructure in place to continue their digitization project, including the scanners, Adobe Photoshop, Millennium ILS for cataloging, and the website for hosting and access. The primary expense the project faces is staff time. The collection contains 40,000  images available online, which is only about  2% of the collection, still much work to be done, and still to little staff to do it.

The images can be searched or browsed through the online database in several ways, by keyword, subject, date, photo ID, by photographer–or browsed by subject or neighborhood. The subject headings cover the 40,000 photographs that have been digitized to date. One could browse a list of the San Francisco History Center’s Subject Guides, using such subjects as Portraits, California Places and Line Drawings.   The San Francisco History Center Subject Collection consists of ten identifiable collections, including; Shades of San Francisco, San Francisco History Center Postcard Collection and the James A. Scott Collection a great set of photos spanning 40 years of then and now shots.

Users are allowed to download and reproduce jpegs for free from the SFPL database, and can purchase higher resolution commercial quality TIFF files or prints. The library maintains their stance of free and equal access even with the photographs themselves, allowing for the images to be “reproduced through a photo lab of the Library’s choice, through the Library scanning service or through a scheduled photo shoot.” Commercial use of the works is also allowed as long as the user consents to follow the “permissions” stated by the library.

For commercial use of images from the San Francisco Public Library, aPermission to Publish Form (PDF 40K) will be used. The library receives a commercial use fee of $15 per image for one time use only. Worldwide rights available upon request.


The Historical Photograph Collection is searchable and accessible through many outlets on the libraries website and there is an abundance of  information  and documentation pertaining to the collection that is available to any online user of the collection. The collection is open to the public and those involved in the project strive to make the collection visible in all ways possible.

The Social networking as a means of free and equal access. 

The SFPL Historical Photograph Collection also has a mission to serve their diverse community, by providing access to the collection online and by use of Web 2.0 tool, the diverse community has come to incorporate an international spectrum, rather than only San Francisco.

By having images on sites such as Flickr and Facebook SFPL has been able to create a whole new community of users. Photo comment, input, and interaction are now part of this community within this forum of social networks. These users comment , participate and even add tags –ones perhaps a trained professional would not use, taking it to another level of access that a traditional archive professional may otherwise take into account.

Lastly the department operates a blog to highlight and feature their digital collection in relation to the libraries other special collections and library wide events. The blog, What’s on the 6th Floorahighly active and incorporates the San Francisco History Center and Book Arts and Special Collections. The manner in which this digital project is featured online creates smart and creative space featuring events, issues, highlights that connect the entire library, the community and its past to users now and into the future.

City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue


BAYNET, Initials. (Producer). (2009). Increasing access to digital collections. Retrieved from

Grimes, A, Kramer, W, Moretta, C, & Weddle, L. (2009 to the present). What’s on the 6th floor?: the san francisco public library’s san francisco history center and book arts & special collections blog.        Retrieved from

San Francisco Public Library. Sfpl san francisco history center/book arts & special collections on facebook. Retrieved from

San Francisco Public Library. (2011). San francisco historical photograph collection – 6th floor . Retrieved from http://

San Francisco Public Library. (2009 to the present). Flickr:san francisco public library historical photos. Retrieved from sfplsanfranciscohistoricalphotographcollection/


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