The A.L.A. Portrait Index is one of the more venerable tools used by the reference librarian. Published 105 years ago, this volume has not been superseded by any other source.
This project, first proposed at an 1888 meeting of the American Library Association, brought together files from the Index Society of Great Britain, Harpers Magazine, the Philadelphia Library Company and the Boston Athenaeum. These compilers assembled over 115,000 index cards that were assembled into this 1,600 page volume.
The editors and compilers indexed 1,181 titles consisting of a total of 6,216 volumes. The aim of the editors was “to include such material as will make it useful both in small libraries and in large libraries, and in publishing houses and newspaper offices as well.” It may probably fail the small library of today because many of the resources cited may be too old and obscure.
Nevertheless, a search for a portrait of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (the pioneering educator of the deaf), for instance, gives, includes a citation for The History of American Sculpture, by Lorado Taft (Macmillan, 1903), page 313. This page shows a photograph of the Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of Gallaudet with Alice Cogswell. However, even without access to this book itself, one can often locate such public domain titles available as a free scan in at Archive.org and at Google Books.
This index is probably of greater value to the historian than to the artist or art scholar. It includes citations for portraits of people of renown from antiquity to the dawn of the 20th century. Kings, presidents, nobility and statesmen are well-represented, but there are also entries for scientists, authors, social activists, musicians, actors and actresses. The age of the original published images guarantees that they are no longer held under copyright.