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How to access a million stunning, copyright-free antique illustrations released by the British Library

The British Library
Image taken from page 78 of “Songs for Little People,” published in 1896.
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

What would you do with a million free images?

In keeping with its ambition to become the world’s most open institution of its kind, the British Library has released over a million public domain illustrations and other images to the public through Flickr for anyone to reuse, remix or repurpose. So far, these images, which range from Restoration-era cartoons to colonial explorers’ early photographs, have been used on rugs, album covers, gift tags, a mapping project, and an art installation at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, among other things.

The project, started in 2013, uses the library’s “Mechanical Curator” to randomly choose images or curiosities from public domain books in its digitized collection, which includes over 65,000 books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The Mechanical Curator was created in the Library’s own lab, and you can see it in action on a Twitter bot, which publishes an image every hour.

Browsing the collection is thrilling, like venturing into a wild and treasure-filled thicket without a map.

The British Library
Image taken from page 195 of 1780’s “Local Poetry. Songs and poems, relating to the town and county of Newcastle upon Tyne, or incidents connected therewith.”
The British Library
Image taken from page 73 of “Letters from the Land of the Rising Sun,” from 1894.
The British Library
Image taken from page 268 of “Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians, 1837.”

Crowd-sourced classification

This incredible visual bounty includes maps, drawings, illustrations, handwritten letters, geological diagrams, cartoons, comics, posters, and decorative scrolls.

While each image on Flickr links back to a PDF of the source book, the sheer volume means that librarians cannot have a good handle on the nature of each image that the Mechanical Curator has flagged. The random collection functions like the richest, most expansive Pinterest board on the internet—and it’s constantly growing. So the library has sought the public’s help to sort through and classify the cascade of images on Flickr.

“The response has been extraordinary, and we certainly didn’t anticipate that these hidden, undescribed images would appeal to so many,” said Ben O’Steen who is the technical lead of the British Library Labs and creator of the Mechanical Curator.

Dive in!

O’Steen tells Quartz that to date, the collection has garnered over 267 million views, and over 400,000 tags have been added to images on Flickr by users. Through a ”tagathon” with the Wikimedia UK community, the Library discovered over 50,000 maps in the collection, which they are now in the process of fitting into a modern map.

The British Library
The British Library
Image taken from page 65 of “Lays of Modern Oxford, by Adon,” from 1874.

Christmas labels, rugs, a Burning Man mural

So how have people been using the images? Because they are in the public domain and authors technically have no obligation to credit the Library, the sky is the limit. The images have been used on stickers, coloring books, games, music album covers and, inevitably a few Photoshop-enabled gags.

O’Steen said that personally he had made Christmas labels with some strange and unusual images in the collection. He also took an illustration of ships coming to shore and had it printed it on a rug.

Artists have also had some fun with the images.

Mario Klingemann
A collage made from faces from the collection
“We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these unseen illustrations.”

Last year David Normal created four illuminated murals by remixing hundreds of Victorian-era images from the British Library’s collection. Normal’s work, “Crossroads of Curiosity” was exhibited at the Burning Man Festival last year, and is currently installed in the British Library’s outdoor piazza.

The British Library
“Crossroads of Curiosity” by David Normal, exhibited at the Burning Man 2014 festival in Nevada.
Duilio Marconi
Crossroads of Curiosity at the British Library.

Here’s the artist explaining how the “lightbox murals” were made:

“We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these unseen illustrations,” said O’Sheen. The Library is hoping that the rich trove of visual material will create alluring starting points for both scholarly and artistic projects.

Although the books were no longer protected by copyright, their obscurity was cloaking them from public attention. By making the images freely available, the idea is to give them back to the public, and thereby make them important again.

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