“Art and Eternity: The Nefertari Wall Paintings Conservation Project, 1986-1992”; Miguel Angel Corzo and Mahasti Afshar, Editors (1993) – just one of hundreds of titles offered for free download in the Getty Museum’s Virtual Library. All images courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Publishing.

Launched in 2014, the Getty Museum’s Virtual Library is a publicly accessible catalog of Getty titles that, for the most part, are no longer readily available in physical form.

“As a publisher, when you run out of copies of a book you can basically either reprint it and keep selling it, or you can retire the title, declaring it out of print,” said Greg Albers, Digital Publications Manager for Getty Publications, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “If it doesn’t make financial sense to reprint and the book goes out of print, the original author or another publisher may choose to pick up the reins and publish a new edition, but more often than not, the book will just sort of disappear. This isn’t a fate anyone wants to see for their books and luckily at the Getty, a decidedly mission-driven organization, we were able to pursue an alternate option. We worked though some legal/copyright issues and released PDFs of the original books, for anyone to read and download, 100% for free.”

“Book Arts of Isfahan: Diversity and Identity in Seventeenth-Century Persia”; Alice Taylor (1995)

At its inception, the library offered just over 250 books — some of which, Albers is quick to mention, are still available for purchase through the Getty store and other retailers. It has since grown to 311 titles.

“That 311 represents a significant chunk of our list,” said Albers, “more than a quarter of the books we’ve ever published. And we’re going to continue adding titles moving forward.”

The virtual catalog includes books across the scope of the Getty’s interests, roughly divided into titles relating to the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Research Institute. Some publications focus on specific artists, others on decorative arts or historical periods, and others on topics as diffuse as Roman gardens, the far Eastern lacquerware tradition of urushi, and the effects of light on materials in collections. Most of the books are in English, but the library also contains some translated volumes in Spanish, French, Japanese, and a few other languages. Albers reported that since the 2014 launch, the Virtual Library has had 398,058 unique downloads of its PDFs.

“Digital or not, that’s a lot of books out in the world!” said Albers. “And I can only presume, in a lot of hands, and in a lot of places around the world that may not have had access to them otherwise.”

“Julia Margaret Cameron: Complete Photographs”; Julian Cox, Colin Ford, Joanne Lukitsh, Philippa Wright (2002)

Albers characterizes the Virtual Library as not only a way of sharing older books in the collection, but building a model for future work in digital publishing, that releases books in multiple formats for free from the beginning, under Creative Commons licenses. The first of these offerings are already available online, with two more to come in the next few months, and “many more in the pipeline.”

The Getty is not the only institution with an eye on virtual publishing of their catalog. Albers calls out the Met as the first to make this move, now offering 576 books for free download, and the Guggenheim has some 200 books hosted on the Internet Archive. While die-hard bibliophiles know there’s nothing like the real thing, lovers of information and environmental conservation can appreciate the tremendous wealth being offered by these institutions and others.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...