Prov Public Library ‘Special Collections’

This really is special: “How to do Good Tattooing” by Miss Cindy Ray, is just one of the gems to be found in the Providence Public Library’s Special Collections. (She numbered the tattoos on her body to keep track of their progress for her first book.) Head curator Jordan Goffin was kind enough to pull items from ‘the early age of machine tattooing’ for me, a grouping that included several colorful tattoo design books, sheets of tattoo flash, marketing ephemera, and an early tattoo machine from the comprehensive Eddie Poferl Collection. I had made an appointment with Mr. Goffin prior to my visit, selecting this topic so he could prepare.


The library is home to tens of thousands of historic books, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, maps, and other artifacts which can then be accessed for research and scholarly work, or just for those with a personal interest. Mr. Goffin answered a few questions about how he curates the collections. Here are his lightly edited remarks:

What materials qualify for acceptance into the collections? What we try to do when we are building a collection is, we are either adding something that is a strength, or maybe we have funds that are dedicated to a purpose, or in a new area . . . for me it’s finding something that connects to multiple strengths that we already have. What we want is for people seeing us a destination for a topic . . . we want people coming here because we have a critical mass of material on a subject.

What got you interested in adding the tattoo collection? So, tattoo was one of these things that triangulates right in the middle of our graphic design collection — history of printing, typography, art and design — and then we’ve got whaling stuff. Those are our two big collections. So what is the third point of the triangle? Tattoo makes sense because theoretically if someone is researching the culture of whaling they might be drawn in that direction, or if someone is researching illustration, they might be drawn in that direction.


Visiting: Everyone is welcome to visit the Special Collections during their regular hours, Monday thru Wednesday, or by appointment. But if you have a topic in mind, contact them in advance and they will have materials ready for you when you arrive. Go here for a list of the collections and collection guides. Topics include: magic, war propaganda, checkers & whist, the AS220 archives, a collection of roller rink decals, the Civil War and slavery, and, Mr. Goffin’s latest triangulation, turn-of-the-century corset advertising, in which our textile history intersects with whaling and printing. Many materials are available online, but then you don’t get to hang out with the affable and knowledgeable Mr. Goffin and see things like Eddie Poferl’s tattoo machine and vintage inks (see below).

The Special Collections are located on the 3rd floor of the library. When you arrive you’ll be asked to leave your coat, bag and other belongings in one of the lockers outside the reading room.

Providence Public Library, 150 Empire Street, (directions)


The Eddie Poferl story is pretty great. He and his family emigrated from Austria to Minnesota in 1887, where he became a professional acrobat, a bootlegger, a boxer, a cop, and a designer of jigsaw puzzles, eventually finding his way into the field of tattooing. Below are vintage inks with a tattoo machine of his own making, and one of the many sketch books in the collection.

Miss Cindy Ray!


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