Friday, November 6, 2009

Finding Political Cartoons

Political cartoons do more than amuse (and occasionally confuse)—they can express, as well as shape, public opinion. Most American high school students learn of the medium’s historical influence through the story of William "Boss" Tweed, a 19th-century New York City politician who was assailed for corruption in a series of Harper’s Weekly cartoons (in addition to a number of articles). Furious over the cartoons’ persuasive power, Tweed reportedly said, “I don't care a straw for your newspaper articles; my constituents don't know how to read. But they can't help seeing them damned pictures!”

There are a variety of reasons why you might search for a particular political cartoon—from as complex as exploring the development of public opinion on a particular topic over time, to as simple as jazzing up a presentation. But where do you go when search engines fail? The Goodson Blogson has some ideas.

Published collections of cartoons from a particular time period or by a particular artist may be available. In the Duke University Libraries catalog, try a subject keyword search for [topic] and cartoons, e.g. civil war and cartoons.

Collections by a particular artist may also be available in the libraries’ catalog or on the web. For example, the Library of Congress maintains an online archive of former Washington Post cartoonist Herblock. The Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum provides exquisite digital exhibitions and a searchable database of selected images.

Many modern political cartoonists are included in Daryl Cagle's Professional Cartoonist Index, which offers a searchable database from 1998-present. Search results include excellent indexing information (i.e., when and where a cartoon originally appeared). Other web sources for more recent cartoons include Cartoon Stock and the Creators Syndicate Editorial Cartoons section.

For historical political cartoons from the major US newspapers, try searching ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Dates vary by individual newspaper, but generally PDFs are available from the mid-1800s to the late 1980s. In the Advanced Search, choose "Document Type" from one of the drop-down boxes and select "Editorial Cartoon" from the browseable list linked to the right. The subject indexing is minimal, so use search terms sparingly! (Most terms will appear in the cartoon captions.) ProQuest provides excellent indexing of when/where the cartoons appeared, and PDF copies for most (some appear as "blocked by copyright" and must be retrieved on the microfilm edition).

The library may also have access to historical full text of other publications; Ask a Librarian if you aren’t sure how to access the archives of a particular publication. For example, Duke researchers can access the famous Boss Tweed cartoons from Harper’s Weekly at (Interesting postscript: As it turned out, Boss Tweed’s concern about the power of the Harper’s Weekly cartoons was well-warranted. After escaping from a New York debtor’s prison following two corruption trials, Tweed fled the country for Spain, where he was eventually apprehended by Spanish authorities and returned to the United States. Allegedly, Tweed was recognized in Spain from his depiction in “them damned pictures.”)