Back when we last featured the New York Public Library’s digital collections in 2016, they contained about 160,000 high-resolution images from various historical periods. This seemed like a fairly vast archive at the time, but in the years since, that number has grown to more than 860,000. If it was difficult to know where to begin exploring it seven years ago — when it already contained such digitized treasures as the Depression-era Farm Security Administration photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks, Walt Whitman’s handwritten preface to Specimen Days, Thomas Jefferson’s list of books for a private library, and sixteenth-century illustrations for The Tale of Genji — it can hardly be easier now.
Or rather, it can hardly be easier unless you start with the NYPL digital collections’ public domain picks, a section of the site that, as of this writing, organizes thousands and thousands of its holdings into thirteen browsable and intriguing categories.
These include the FSA photos, but also book illustrations by William Blake, editions of The Negro Traveler’s Green Book (as previously featured here on Open Culture), the music and lyrics for American popular songs, the papers of Walt Whitman, and the more than 42,000 stereoscopic prints of the Robert N. Dennis collection, which capture an early form of 3D views of a fast-developing (and, often, now-unrecognizable) American continent.
Enthusiasts of New York City itself will no doubt make straight for sections like “changing New York,” “photographs of Ellis Island, 1902–1913,” and “album de la construction de la Statue de la Liberté.” Soon after after its dedication in 1886, the Statue of Liberty came to symbolize not just a city, and not just a country, but the very concept of American civilization and the grand cultural exchange it had already begun to conduct with the rest of the world. 137 years later, you can spend a little time in the NYPL’s digital collections and turn up everything from illuminated manuscripts from medieval and Renaissance Europe to Japanese woodblock prints to color drawings of Indian life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — and you don’t have to be anywhere near New York to do so. Enter the NYPL digital collections here.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.