The British Library Puts Over 1,000,000 Images in the Public Domain: A Deeper Dive Into the Collection

Oriental Tooth Paste

Every year for the past decade or so, we‘ve seen new, dire pro­nounce­ments of the death of print, along with new, upbeat rejoin­ders. This year is no dif­fer­ent, though the prog­no­sis has seemed espe­cial­ly pos­i­tive of late in robust appraisals of the sit­u­a­tion from enti­ties as diver­gent as The Onion’s A.V. Club and finan­cial giant Deloitte. I, for one, find this encour­ag­ing. And yet, even if all print­ed media were in decline, it would still be the case that the his­to­ry of the mod­ern world will most­ly be told in the his­to­ry of print. And iron­i­cal­ly, it is online media that has most enabled the means to make that his­to­ry avail­able to every­one, in dig­i­tal archives that won’t age or burn down.

One such archive, the British Library’s Flickr Com­mons project, con­tains over one mil­lion images from the 17th, 18th, and 19th cen­turies. As the Library wrote in their announce­ment of these images’ release, they 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.” Microsoft dig­i­tized the books rep­re­sent­ed here, and then donat­ed them to the Library for release into the Pub­lic Domain.

The Aldine “O'er Land and Sea.” Library

One of the quirky fea­tures of this decid­ed­ly quirky assem­blage is the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor, a bot-run blog that gen­er­ates “ran­dom­ly select­ed small illus­tra­tions and orna­men­ta­tions, post­ed on the hour.” At the time of writ­ing, it has giv­en us an ad for the rather cul­tur­al­ly dat­ed arti­fact “Ori­en­tal Tooth Paste,” a prod­uct “pre­pared by Jews­bury & Brown.” Many of the oth­er selec­tions have con­sid­er­ably less fris­son. Nonethe­less, writes the Library, often “our newest col­league,” the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor, “plucks from obscu­ri­ty, places all before you, and leaves you to work out the rest. Or not.”


The Flickr Com­mons site itself gives us a much more con­ven­tion­al orga­ni­za­tion, with images—most of them dis­cov­ered by the Mechan­i­cal Curator—grouped into sev­er­al dozen themed albums. We have “Book cov­ers found by the com­mu­ni­ty from the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor Col­lec­tion,” fea­tur­ing images like that of The Texas Tramp or Sol­id Sam the Yan­kee Her­cules, a pulpy title pub­lished in 1890 by the Aldine Library’s “O’er Land and Sea” series. And just above, see an illus­tra­tion from the 1892 pub­li­ca­tion To the Snows of Tibet through China…With Illus­tra­tions and a Map. Each image’s page offers links to oth­er illus­tra­tions in the book and those of oth­er books pub­lished in the same year.

Cottager's Sabbath

Here, we have a strik­ing illus­tra­tion from an 1841 edi­tion of The Cottager’s Sab­bath, a poem… with … vignettes… by H. War­ren. This image comes from “Archi­tec­ture, found by the com­mu­ni­ty from the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor Col­lec­tion.”


We also have odd­i­ties like the illus­tra­tion above, from 1885’s “A Can­ter­bury Pil­grim­age, rid­den, writ­ten, and illus­trat­ed by J. and E.R.P.” This is to be found in “Cycling, found by the com­mu­ni­ty from [you guessed it] the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor Col­lec­tion,” which also con­tains plen­ty of more com­mer­cial illus­tra­tions like the 1893 “Paten­tee of Keating’s Spring Fork.”

Spring Fork

Speak­ing of com­merce, we also have an album devot­ed to adver­tise­ments, found by the com­mu­ni­ty from, yes, the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor Col­lec­tion. Here you will dis­cov­er ads like “Ori­en­tal Tooth Paste” or that below for “Gentlemen’s & Boy’s Cloth­ing 25 Per Cent. Under Usu­al Lon­don Prices” from 1894. Our con­cep­tion of Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land as exces­sive­ly for­mal gets con­firmed again and again in these ads, which, like the ran­dom choice at the top of the post, con­tain their share of awk­ward or humor­ous his­tor­i­cal notions.

Gentlemen's Clothing

Doubt­less none of the pro­to-Mad Men of these very Eng­lish pub­li­ca­tions fore­saw such a mar­vel as the Mechan­i­cal Cura­tor. Much less might they have fore­seen such a mech­a­nism aris­ing with­out a mon­e­tiz­ing scheme. But thanks to this free, new­fan­gled algorithm’s efforts, and much assis­tance from “the com­mu­ni­ty,” we have a dig­i­tal record that shows us how pub­lic dis­course shaped print cul­ture, or the oth­er way around. A fas­ci­nat­ing, and at times bewil­der­ing, fea­ture of this phe­nom­e­nal archive is the require­ment that we our­selves sup­ply most of the cul­tur­al con­text for these aus­tere­ly pre­sent­ed images.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

2,200 Rad­i­cal Polit­i­cal Posters Dig­i­tized: A New Archive

Yale Launch­es an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

Down­load for Free 2.6 Mil­lion Images from Books Pub­lished Over Last 500 Years on Flickr

Down­load 100,000 Free Art Images in High-Res­o­lu­tion from The Get­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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    Excit­ing to see all kind of images thath is hard to find anywhere…Thanks for the gift !!!

  • Iliana says:

    Cool! It’s amaz­ing, thank you for shar­ing that huge col­lec­tion! @-@

  • Reshma says:

    “Gentlemen’s & Boy’s Cloth­ing 25 Per Cent. Under Usu­al Lon­don Prices” from 1894.

    Where is the source infor­ma­tion here? With­out the prop­er ref­er­ence num­ber the cita­tion is real­ly mis­lead­ing. Where is the British Library’s Ref­er­ence num­ber or Book ref­er­ence or News­pa­per ref­er­ence such as name, title, shelf­marks or the appro­pri­ate ref­er­ences.

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