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British Library Releases 1M Images into the Public Domain

by An Xiao on January 2, 2014

An image by Eliza F. Manning from "The Coming of Father Christmas", published in 1894.

An image by Eliza F. Manning from “The Coming of Father Christmas”, published in 1894. (all images via the British Library)

One of the most beautiful aspects of the internet is how it encourages creation almost as much as it does consumption. I recently wrote about how cultural institutions are finding new ways to bring their collections to life, but access to these materials, in my opinion, is just one important step. The next is giving your visitors the opportunity to also use the materials, remix them, create new works from them.

More proof that puppies in baskets are timeless comes from this 1888 monograph, "Our Farm. The troubles and successes thereof. The story told by F. W. P. and illustrated by L. Wain"

More proof that puppies in baskets are timeless comes from this 1888 monograph, “Our Farm. The troubles and successes thereof. The story told by F. W. P. and illustrated by L. Wain”

Earlier this month, Open Culture pointed to a big move from the British Library: the library is putting a million images into the public domain. Accessible on the library’s sprawling Flickr account, these images’s copyright statuses are marked as “no known copyright restrictions.” This indicates according to Flickr’s Commons means that cultural institutions “have reasonably concluded that a photograph is free of copyright restrictions.” According to the Library’s own press release, “These images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft who then generously gifted the scanned images to us, allowing us to release them back into the Public Domain.”

An Instagram tourist shot from 1821's "Voyages and Travels of Her Majesty, Caroline Queen of Great Britain."

An Instagram tourist shot from 1821′s “Voyages and Travels of Her Majesty, Caroline Queen of Great Britain.”

A quick glance at Flickr’s Commons listings shows that the British Library joins other institutions like the Vancouver Public Library Historical Photographs, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the Brooklyn Museum, the Library of Congress, and many more in offering their holdings to the public this way. More intriguing is something noted in the Library’s announcement:

We may know which book, volume and page an image was drawn from, but we know nothing about a given image. Consider the image below. The title of the work may suggest the thematic subject matter of any illustrations in the book, but it doesn’t suggest how colourful and arresting these images are.

"The Chromatographic Chronicle of English History, illustrated by ... coloured charts, etc" -- a good example of an image that could benefit from stronger metadata and analysis. What's going on here? What does it mean?

“The Chromatographic Chronicle of English History, illustrated by … coloured charts, etc” — a good example of an image that could benefit from stronger metadata and analysis. What’s going on here? What does it mean?

With that in mind, they plan to “launch a crowdsourcing application at the beginning of next year.” The point will be to train data for more automated classification (anyone familiar with natural language processing would be familiar with this process), but they’re also open to other suggestions. That seems to me like a great start, but I’d love to see more remixing and creative use of these images, which represent an enormous cross section of our aesthetic and visual heritage in the West. And in a clear sign of the Library’s commitment to open source and open access, they’ve placed the metadata for each image up on Github as well.

An image from John Warner Barber's Connecticut Historical Collections shows one of many white men with titles whose portraits appear in the Library's collections. Understanding portraiture from the 19th century might help us understand the diversification of portraiture and self-portraiture in the 21st century.

An image from John Warner Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collections shows one of many white men with titles whose portraits appear in the Library’s collections. Understanding portraiture from the 19th century might help us understand the diversification of portraiture and self-portraiture in the 21st century.

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  • punktoad

    Keep those cards and letters coming!

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