In 1995 the Library of Congress purchased the William P. Gottlieb Collection with financial support from the Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund. The collection consists of jazz photographs taken by writer-photographer William P. Gottlieb, from 1938 to 1948, the "Golden Age of Jazz" when swing reached its peak and modern jazz developed. While on assignment for the Washington Post, Down Beat magazine, and Record Changer, Gottlieb photographed and interviewed jazz pioneers primarily in Washington, D.C., and New York City. A skilled craftsman, the self-taught photographer captured the personalities of jazz musicians in a sensitive, storytelling manner. The collection is an important contribution to the documentation of American culture during a time when jazz music thrived. Gottlieb's photographs are perhaps the most widely reproduced images of jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Stan Kenton, Ray McKinley, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Ella Fitzgerald, and Benny Carter.
Approximately 1,600 negatives and color transparencies, 54 framed exhibition prints, 950 reference prints, and accompanying contact prints compose the collection. The bulk of the negatives are black-and-white nitrate or acetate film cut into three sizes: 2-1/4 x 2-1/4, 3-1/4 x 4-1/4, and 4 x 5 inches. Contact prints are 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 inches or less and are often annotated with cropping, burning, and other special instructions. Gottlieb divided his photographs into two separate series. Series A contains many of the most frequently published images while Series B consists of less popular, but not necessarily lower quality, photographs. Uncropped 8 x 10-inch reference prints of Series A are available in the Music Division Reading Room. The Prints and Photographs Division houses the negatives, color transparencies, and contact prints, but the Music Division Reading Room handles reference work related to the collection.
The online collection provides access to digital images of all sixteen hundred negatives and transparencies, approximately one hundred annotated contact prints, and over two hundred selected photographic prints that show Gottlieb's cropping, burning, and dodging preferences. One can follow the artist's work process by examining first a raw negative, then an annotated contact print, and finally a finished, published product. The Web site also includes digital images of Down Beat magazine articles in which Gottlieb's photographs were first published. Other special features of the online presentation are audio clips of Gottlieb discussing specific photographs, articles about the collection from Civilization magazine and the Library of Congress Information Bulletin, an essay describing Gottlieb's life and work, and a "Gottlieb on Assignment" section that showcases Down Beat articles about Thelonious Monk, Dardanelle, Willie "the Lion" Smith, and Buddy Rich.