Photo Essays

In the Internet Archive’s Millions of Public-Domain Images, a Guide to Museum History

by Allison Meier on September 5, 2014

"Specimens from the Naples Museum" (1889) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“Specimens from the Naples Museum” (1889) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

The Internet Archive is using public domain digitization to offer an entryway into its over 500 years of historical texts already online. Last week the archive, which has around 600 million pages on its library platform, announced that it was joining Flickr Commons with plans to put 14 million images online. More than 2.6 million of them are already accessible.

As Kay Kremerskothen put it on the Flickr blog:

What would it look like if those 600 million pages could be ‘read’ completely differently? What if every illustration, drawing, chart, map, or photograph became an entry point, allowing one to navigate the world’s books not as paragraphs of text, but as a visual tapestry of our lives? How would we learn and explore knowledge differently?

The Flickr Commons, and many other online archives, are already rich with public domain and creative commons images from all over, but the Internet Archive is consciously working to make sure the context for its images doesn’t get lost. Each one comes with its source information as well as the text that originally surrounded it. A search term doesn’t just pull up images of that word, but others related to it as well. Headed by collaborating scholar Kalev Leetaru, the project involves recovering images that were removed by an optical character recognition program in the process of digitizing texts. You can still access a link on each image’s page to view it in its original document.

Over at the BBC, they note that the “project has resulted in even more pictures of cats being put on to the internet.” But scrolling through, it was the old museum guides that caught my eye, from twisted skeletons in the Warren Anatomical Museum in Boston to a now sadly gone rat-infested house diorama in the American Museum of Natural History. Below are just a few selections from these old museum publications — guides to collections that are, like the Internet Archive images themselves, fleeting portals of history waiting for descent.

"General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History" (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History” (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

"Bulletin of the Warren Anatomical Museum" (1910) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“Bulletin of the Warren Anatomical Museum” (1910) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Blind children studying natural history in "General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History" (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Blind children studying natural history in “General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History” (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

"A guide to the fossil mammals and birds in the Department of geology and paleontology in the British Museum" (1909) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“A guide to the fossil mammals and birds in the Department of geology and paleontology in the British Museum” (1909) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

"General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History" (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History” (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Worcester Art Museum "Catalogue of paintings and drawings." (1922) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Worcester Art Museum “Catalogue of paintings and drawings” (1922) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

American Museum of Natural History "Guide leaflet" (1901) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

American Museum of Natural History “Guide leaflet” (1901) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

"Specimens from the Naples Museum" (1889) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“Specimens from the Naples Museum” (1889) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Model of a rat-infested home in the American Museum of Natural History "Guide leaflet" (1901) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Model of a rat-infested home in the American Museum of Natural History “Guide leaflet” (1901) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Corcoran Gallery of Art floor plan from "Rand, McNally Washington guide to the city and environs" (1917) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Corcoran Gallery of Art floor plan from “Rand, McNally Washington guide to the city and environs” (1917) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

"General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History" (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“General guide to the exhibition halls of the American Museum of Natural History” (1911) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

"Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin. Number 23, July 1908" (1908) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

“Pennsylvania Museum Bulletin. Number 23, July 1908″ (1908) (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Find all of the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr Commons.

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