The British Library Puts 1,000,000 Images into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Reuse & Remix

brit library image

Earlier this week, Oxford’s Bodleian Library announced that it had digitized a 550 year old copy of the Gutenberg Bible along with a number of other ancient bibles, some of them quite beautiful. Not to be outdone, the British Library came out with its own announcement on Thursday:

We have released over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose. 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. The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.

The librarians behind the project freely admit that they don’t exactly have a great handle on the images in the collection. They know what books the images come from. (For example, the image above comes from Historia de las Indias de Nueva-España y islas de Tierra Firme, 1867.) But they don’t know much about the particulars of each visual. And so they’re turning to crowdsourcing for answers. In fairly short order, the Library plans to release tools that will let willing participants gather information and deepen our understanding of everything in the Flickr Commons collection.

You can jump into the entire collection here, or view a set of highlights here. The latter happens to include a curious image. (See below.) It’s from an 1894 book called The United States of America. A study of the American Commonwealth, its natural resources, people, industries, manufactures, commerce, and its work in literature, science, education and self-government. And the picture features, according to the text, a “Typical figure, showing tendency of student life–stooping head, flat chest, and emaciated limbs.” It’s hard to know what to say about that.

american student

via Boing Boing

Related Content:

The Rijksmuseum Puts 125,000 Dutch Masterpieces Online, and Lets You Remix Its Art

The Getty Puts 4600 Art Images Into the Public Domain (and There’s More to Come)

The Digital Public Library of America Launches Today, Opening Up Knowledge for All

Cornell Launches Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Animal Sounds, with Recordings Going Back to 1929


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  1. jessamyn says . . . | December 14, 2013 / 1:50 pm

    So great.

  2. RetroMan says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 1:31 am

    In America, these images had been in the public domain for some time, because they had been published before 1922. So Microsoft didn’t “release” anything, and the British Library didn’t need permission to put into the public domain what was already there.

  3. Alex Wild says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 8:10 am

    These images were already in the public domain. What the British Library did was put them online, which is nice, but it’s hardly the same thing.

  4. turnkit says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 8:24 am

    What’s with the solarization on the students pant legs? They really did all that scanning work and then reduced the quality so that there are just a few tones of black on that pant leg?!!? Sometimes doing poor archival is worse than no archival because now that it’s “done” no one is going to re-do it. Here’s to hoping those scans are better at the source.

  5. Dave Bailey says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 9:11 am

    “These images were already in the public domain. What the British Library did was put them online, which is nice, but it’s hardly the same thing.”n”In America, these images had been in the public domain for some time, because they had been published before 1922. So Microsoft didn’t “release” anything, and the British Library didn’t need permission to put into the public domain what was already there.”nnnCome on guys, don’t you realise that these days it’s all about taking credit? (If you use that explanation one day, don’t forget that I said it first. In fact, give me a credit) ;-)

  6. Open Culture says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 9:46 am

    Just curious, does anyone know which Facebook page gave this a mention this morning? nnThanks,nDan (editor)

  7. idefix says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 9:49 am

    But in the UK, the BL still owns the copyright to scans of images in its collections, so these images were not free of copyright restrictions until the BL decided it was. International copyright law is quite complicated, and has to do with the owner of the physical object, as well as the date of creation of the object.

  8. Zadzi says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 10:00 am

    Cairo Observer posted this today on its facebook page.

  9. Frank Flowers says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 10:44 am

    Jesus Christ Dave….

  10. Victoria L Gonzalez DeHaan says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 11:13 am

    the Mackinaw Area Public Library posted it

  11. Open Culture says . . . | December 15, 2013 / 1:19 pm

    Thanks all for letting me know.

  12. StrawCat says . . . | December 16, 2013 / 12:20 am

    The Owl Report.

  13. StrawCat says . . . | December 16, 2013 / 12:22 am

    You missed one small detail: Microsoft digitized/ photographed the images, and from a legal point of view, those images are copyrighted.

  14. 891ccv says . . . | December 16, 2013 / 8:41 am

    “entire collection here” link only goes to highlights page

  15. 891ccv says . . . | December 16, 2013 / 8:44 am

    Here’s link to entire collection …

  16. Abilitv Disability-Awareness says . . . | December 16, 2013 / 10:25 am

    Yes mine lol. and it is being shown live on the show now online as well. :)

  17. Gordon McAlpin says . . . | December 16, 2013 / 1:49 pm

    You’re misguided here. I’ve been a professional print production artist for nearly two decades. Look more closely at how the tones look; it’s clearly NOT the result of digital posterization. It is a scan from a printed book; what you think is “solarization” is a low line screen on the printing of the BOOK that they had. This is a perfectly fine digital facsimile of a bad reproduction of a photo.nnnAnd, being a library, it seems pretty likely that they would have a book but NOT the original photo used in the production of the book.

  18. Mahesh Bhat says . . . | December 17, 2013 / 10:08 pm

    It’s private invitation only group related to kindle marketing, so can’t reveal the page

  19. Andacar says . . . | May 26, 2014 / 12:44 am

    This article says the images are “free to reuse and remix.” However, when I go to the Flickr commons there appears to be no way of downloading them, and Save Image is disabled. Do you have to be a member? Or am I just missing something here?

  20. Ana says . . . | June 3, 2014 / 2:55 pm

    To save the images: right clic on the image and select one of the size options, the image will appear with the chosen size, there you can save the image in the usual way :)

  21. Rosa Bouchot says . . . | October 3, 2014 / 10:50 am


  22. Peter Grudin says . . . | January 21, 2015 / 5:49 am


  23. Peter Grudin says . . . | January 21, 2015 / 5:50 am

    “gifted”? And don’t tell me it is common usage. It is common enough and commonly used out of a combination of pretentiousness and tastelessness.

  24. FlashbackKid says . . . | January 21, 2015 / 1:43 pm

    Just enjoy them and quit whining about who, what, when, and where. Thanks to the responsible parties who made available to me. :0)

  25. subhash yadav says . . . | January 22, 2015 / 8:56 am

    I want alwar city historical photos

  26. Gamini Akmeemana says . . . | January 25, 2015 / 10:57 pm

    I’m a third world writer and hope to start my own modest cyber museum and archives as it’s a neglected and poorly understood subject over here. I love reading about public domain resources and will link with them once I get going.

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