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Unlike objective analysis of events or issues, editorial or political cartoons provide perspective, and a knitting together of complexities. They do not suffer from the same diminished intellectual status as comic strips and cartoon books. Indeed they - or rather the artists who draw them - are esteemed as "functioning subversives, waging war on the powerful, the exploiters, and the privileged." The political cartoons of Thomas Nast, published in Harper's Weekly, are credited with bringing down the corrupt "Boss" Tweed administration of Tammany Hall in the 1870s in New York. Moreover, editorial cartoons are hailed by some as what keep us free. "There is nothing that tyrants and rascals fear more than satire and ridicule, and the graphic form has always proved to be uniquely painful. Freedom of expression for the political cartoonists is a litmus test for democracy."
But curiously, for all the accolades bestowed upon editorial cartoonists and the power of their art, it is almost impossible to gain access to that art in a library. One can find collections of the 'best' editorial cartoons of the year or decade, or one can travel to libraries around the country or world to view special collections of editorial cartoons, but access to an admired cartoon of three months ago, or even any information about that cartoon, is severely limited. Editorial cartoons are not indexed in The New York Times Index, National Newspaper Index, or Reader's Guide.
Is it lack of interest or lack of access? Which comes first? The potency of their message is probably not lost on even the most casual newspaper reader who may glance at the cartoon on an otherwise unread editorial page. So why aren't more people referencing these editorial cartoons the way they would an article or editorial? Is it because cartoons in general are thought to be of little consequence, and editorial cartoons specifically thought to be ephemeral? There is divided opinion about this among the organizations responsible for creating access, but in this much-touted age of information, access to editorial cartoons is improving.
Editorial Cartoons: Sources and Access
Editorial cartoons are commonly found on the editorial pages of most, if not all, daily newspapers in the United States. Cartoonists are on staff at many U.S. newspapers (e.g., the Boston Globe, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle), where their work is first published, then released for syndication to hundreds of other daily newspapers. Magazines also publish syndicated editorial cartoons. The Nation, World Press Review, and Newsweek (which periodically publishes a year-end compilation of noteworthy editorial cartoons), are three examples of national periodicals that routinely carry editorial cartoons. Older editorial cartoons were regularly published in such periodicals as Harper's Weekly (1857-1916), Puck (1877-1918), and major U.S. newspapers, most notably the Chicago Tribune.
The primary source for both current and older editorial cartoons is newspapers in both paper and microform. For years researchers have conducted their tedious research by sifting through piles of yellowed, crumbling newspapers, seeking the page on which the cartoon was customarily published - never knowing if that particular cartoon was about the desired subject or by the desired illustrator. Microfilm has made the search easier, but although an illustrator list has sometimes been available in the printed index to a newspaper, (for example, Bell and Howell's Newspaper Index), a subject index to cartoons has not been the norm.
Museums and special cartoon collections in libraries around the world are other access points used primarily by scholars. For those museums that have not yet chosen to automate access to their cartoon collections, access is usually through a card catalog, alphabetized first by the illustrator's name, then by caption if there is one. Henry Simmons, librarian at the McCain Library of the University of Southern Mississippi, which was "the repository, between 1973 and 1983, for representative political cartoons chosen for the annual traveling exhibit of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists," says editorial cartoons, when asked for at all, are asked for by illustrator, not by a particular cartoon or subject. A subject index was never considered, and since the collection is now "dead" and inquiries have diminished over time, no further cataloging or indexing is being considered.
Barbara Vandegrift, librarian at the National Press Club, echoed the observation of Simmons; editorial cartoons are rarely asked for by the journalists who use her library. This may be a reflection of their limited collection (editorial cartoons primarily from the 1930s and 1940s), or a more general attitude regarding the journalistic uselessness of old editorial cartoons. In any event, access to the collection is through a series of catalog cards and data sheets on which the following information can be found: format (i.e., cartoon, caricature, comic strip), title, legend, subject, cartoonist, medium, a copy of the cartoonist's signature, inscription, publication date, and condition. The "subject" is a one-sentence visual description of the cartoon.
Other institutions that one might assume would keep elaborate and intricate indexing systems to their holdings simply do not. Mark Johnson, head of archives at King Features Syndicate, the largest syndicator of cartoons, says editorial cartoons have a very short shelf life. Reprints for them are rarely requested, unlike the comic strips they syndicate, like Beetle Bailey, Blondie, and Family Circus. Johnson found it "a waste of time" to organize editorial cartoons …