The New York Public Library Presents an Archive of 860,000 Historical Images: Download Medieval Manuscripts, Japanese Prints, William Blake Illustrations & More

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.

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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.

The Entire Manuscript Collection of Geoffrey Chaucer Gets Digitized: A New Archive Features 25,000 Images of The Canterbury Tales & Other Illustrated Medieval Manuscripts

Earlier this year, Oxford professor of English literature Marion Turner published The Wife of Bath: A Biography. Even if you don’t know anything about that book’s subject, you’ve almost certainly heard of her, and perhaps also of her traveling companions like the Knight, the Summoner, the Nun’s Priest, and the Canon’s Yeoman. These are just a few of the pilgrims whose storytelling contest structures Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century magnum opus The Canterbury Tales, whose influence continues to reverberate through English literature, even all these centuries after the author’s death. In commemoration of the 623rd anniversary of that work, the British Library has opened a vast online Chaucer archive.

This archive comes as a culmination of what the Guardian‘s Caroline Davies describes as “a two and a half year project to upload 25,000 images of the often elaborately illustrated medieval manuscripts.” Among these artifacts are “complete copies of Chaucer’s poems but also unique survivals, including fragmentary texts found in Middle English anthologies or inscribed in printed editions and incunabula (books printed before 1501).”

If you’re looking for The Canterbury Tales, you’ll find no fewer than 23 versions of it, the earliest of which “was written only a few years after Chaucer’s death in roughly 1400.” Also digitized are “rare copies of the 1476 and 1483 editions of the text made by William Caxton,” now considered “the first significant text to be printed in England.”

Four centuries later, designer-writer-social reformer William Morris collaborated with celebrated painter Edward Burne-Jones to create an edition W. B. Yeats once called “the most beautiful of all printed books“: the Kelmscott Chaucer, previously featured here on Open Culture, which you can also explore in the British Library’s new archive (as least as soon as its ongoing cyber attack-related issues are resolved). As its wider contents reveal, Chaucer was the author of not just The Canterbury Tales but also a variety of other poems, the classical-dream-vision story collection The Legend of Good Women, an instruction manual for an astrolabe, and translations of The Romance of the Rose and The Consolation of Philosophy. And his Trojan epic Troilus and Criseyde may sound familiar, thanks to the inspiration it gave, more than 200 years later, to a countryman by the name of William Shakespeare.

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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.

A New Online Archive Lets You Read the Whole Earth Catalog and Other Whole Earth Publications, Taking You from 1970 to 2002

Today, if you want to get started in home brewing, shop for a synthesizer, find out what cybernetics is, order non-genetically-modified seeds, start your own mushroom farm, learn how to repair a Volkswagen, subscribe to libertarian publications, purchase the work of Marshall McLuhan, sign up for an outdoor excursion, read an essay on zen Buddhism, compare home-birth setups, gather homeschooling materials, build a geodesic dome, you go to one place first: the internet. Half a century ago, when the personal computer had only just come into existence, that wouldn’t have been an option. But provided you were sufficiently tapped into the counterculture, you could open up the nineteen-seventies equivalent of the internet: The Whole Earth Catalog.

Launched by Stewart Brand in 1968, the Whole Earth Catalog curated and presented the products and services of a wide variety of businesses all between the covers of one increasingly weighty printed volume offering what its slogan called “access to tools.”

While certain of its sections reflected the most literal meaning of the term “tools” — you could’ve kept a pretty robust farm going with all the implements on offer, and no doubt more than a few readers tried to do so — the larger enterprise seemed to run on the goal of expanding the definition of what a tool could be, as well as the range of possibilities it could open to its user. Even subscribers who never bought a product could receive an education from the catalog’s often eccentric but always informative descriptions of those products.

“Behind the information, the advice, the hints, and the facts, this book is about coming to see things as they are, through your own eyes, instead of the hired eyes of some expert or other. It’s about training yourself to trust yourself, and trusting yourself to train yourself, until you‘re able to claim your right as a human to be competent with your hands.” These words come from writer and documentarian Gurney Norman’s capsule review, in the spring 1970 Whole Earth Catalog, of Joan Ranson Shortney’s book, How to Live on Nothing (described therein as “our best-selling book”). But Norman could just as well have been describing the Whole Earth Catalog itself, which was all about the ability of individuals and small groups, equipped with not just technology new and old but also deep reserves of optimism and humor, to determine their own destiny.

“The Whole Earth Catalog offered a vision for a new social order,” writes the New Yorker‘s Anna Wiener, “one that eschewed institutions in favor of individual empowerment, achieved through the acquisition of skills and tools. The latter category included agricultural equipment, weaving kits, mechanical devices, books like Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia, and digital technologies and related theoretical texts, such as Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a programmable calculator.” Other sections might offer Gravity’s Rainbow; an Apple II home computer; something called “self-therapeutic rubber”; and even a hot tub. “Many a newcomer to California remembers forever the trauma of first being invited — at a perfectly ordinary party — to strip and enter a steaming tub full of strangers,” writes Brand in the Next Whole Earth Catalog of fall 1980, which may sound a bit late in the game for that sort of thing.

But then, the spirit of the Whole Earth Catalog, first animated by the free-enterprise-and-free-love nineteen-sixties and seventies, has long outlasted its original cultural moment — and indeed the catalog itself, which ceased publication in 1998. But now, thanks to Gray Area and the Internet Archive, you can read and download many issues of not just the Whole Earth Catalog but also its successor publications, from CoEvolution Quarterly to Whole Earth Magazine, in a new online collection spanning the years 1970 to 2002. To browse it is to enter a countercultural time machine, experiencing both the preposterousness and the prescience of the counterculture as if for the first time. But then, for the vast majority of its visitors here in the twenty-first century — who know that counterculture only indirectly, through its wide but diffuse influence on everything up to and including the internet — it will be the first time. Enter the collection here.

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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.

1,500 Paintings & Drawings by Vincent van Gogh Have Been Digitized & Put Online

Every artist explores dimensions of space and place, orienting themselves and their works in the world, and orienting their audiences. Then there are artists like Vincent van Gogh, who make space and place a primary subject. In his early paintings of peasant homes and fields, his figures’ muscular shoulders and hands interact with sturdy walls and gnarled trees. Later country scenes—whether curling and delicate, like Wheatfield with a Reaper, or heavy and ominous, like Wheatfield with Crows (both below)—give us the sense of the landscape as a single living entity, pulsating, writhing, blazing in brilliant yellows, reds, greens, and blues.

Van Gogh painted interior scenes, such as his famous The Bedroom, at the top (the first of three versions), with an eye toward using color as the means of making space purposeful: “It’s just simply my bedroom,” he wrote to Paul Gauguin of the 1888 painting, “only here color is to do everything… to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In a word, looking at the picture ought to rest the brain, or rather the imagination.”

So taken was the painter with the concept of using color to induce “rest or sleep” in his viewers’ imaginations that when water damage threatened the “stability” of the first painting, Chicago’s Art Institute notes, “he became determined to preserve the composition by painting a second version while at an asylum in Saint-Rémy in 1889,” then demonstrated the deep emotional resonance this scene had for him by painting a third, smaller version for his mother and sister.

The opportunity to see all of Van Gogh’s bedroom paintings in one place may have passed us by for now—an exhibit in Chicago brought them together in 2016. But we can see the original bedroom at the yellow house in Arles in a virtual space, along with 1,500 more Van Gogh paintings and drawings, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam’s site. The digitized collection showcases a vast amount of Van Gogh’s work—including not only landscapes, but also his many portraits, self-portraits, drawings, city scenes, and still-lifes.

One way to approach these works is through the unifying themes above: how does van Gogh use color to communicate space and place, and to what effect? Even in portraits and still-lifes, his figures compete with the ground. The scored and scalloped paintings of walls, floors, and wallpaper force our attention past the staring eyes of the painter or the finely-rendered fruits and shoes, and into the depths and textures of shadow and light. We begin to see people and objects as inseparable from their surroundings.

“Painting is a faith,” Van Gogh once wrote, and it is as if his paintings ask us to contemplate the spiritual unity of all things; the same animating flame brings every object in his blazing worlds to life. The Van Gogh Museum houses the largest collection of the artist’s work in the world. On their website you can read essays about his life and work, plan a visit, or shop at the online store. But most importantly, you can experience the stunning breadth of his art through your screen—no replacement for the physical spaces of galleries, but a worthy means nonetheless of communing with Van Gogh’s vision.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2018.

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

The Smithsonian Puts 4.5 Million High-Res Images Online and Into the Public Domain, Making Them Free to Use

That vast repository of American history that is the Smithsonian Institution evolved from an organization founded in 1816 called the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. Its mandate, the collection and dissemination of useful knowledge, now sounds very much of the nineteenth century — but then, so does its name. Columbia, the goddess-like symbolic personification of the United States of America, is seldom directly referenced today, having been superseded by Lady Liberty. Traits of both figures appear in the depiction on the nineteenth-century fireman’s hat above, about which you can learn more at Smithsonian Open Access, a digital archive that now contains some 4.5 million images.

“Anyone can download, reuse, and remix these images at any time — for free under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license,” write My Modern Met’s Jessica Stewart and Madeleine Muzdakis. “A dive into the 3D records shows everything from CAD models of the Apollo 11 command module to Horatio Greenough’s 1840 sculpture of George Washington.”

The 2D artifacts of interest include “a portrait of Pocahontas in the National Portrait Gallery, an image of the 1903 Wright Flyer from the National Air and Space Museum, and boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.”

The NMAAHC in particular has provided a great many items relevant to twentieth-century American culture, like James Baldwin’s inkwell, Chuck Berry’s guitar Maybellene, Public Enemy’s boombox, and the poster for a 1968 Nina Simone concert. The more obscure object just above, a Native American kachina figure with the head of Mickey Mouse, comes from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “When Disney Studios put a mouse hero on the silver screen in the 1930s,” explain the accompanying notes, “Hopi artists saw in Mickey Mouse a celebration of Tusan Homichi, the legendary mouse warrior who defeated a chicken-stealing hawk” — and were thus themselves inspired, it seems, to sum up a wide swath of American history in a single object.

More items are being added to Smithsonian Open Access all the time, each with its own story to tell — and all accessible not just to Americans, but internet users the world over. In that sense it feels a bit like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, better known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, with its mission of revealing America’s scientific, technological, and artistic genius to the whole of human civilization. You can see a great many photos and other artifacts of this landmark event at Smithsonian Open Access, or, if you prefer, you can click the “just browsing” link and behold all the historical, cultural, and formal variety available in the Smithsonian’s digital collections, where the spirit of Columbia lives on.

via Kottke/My Modern Met

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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.

The Internet Archive Launches Democracy’s Library, a Free Online Library of 500,000 Documents Supporting Democracy

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” So said Winston Churchill, perhaps not suspecting how frequently the remark would be quoted in the decades thereafter. Time and experience continue to reveal to us democracy’s liabilities, but also — at least in certain societies — the nature of its surprising staying power. Since well before Churchill’s time, democracy and its workings have been objects of fascination the world over. So have its central questions, not least the one of just how to maintain the “informed citizenry” on which its operation supposedly depends.

The Internet Archive has just launched its own kind of answer in the form of Democracy’s Library. “A free, open, online compendium of government research and publications from around the world,” the site offers citizens a way to “leverage useful research, learn about the workings of their government, hold officials accountable, and be more informed voters.”

Collected from a variety of governmental bodies like the United States’ National Agricultural LibraryForeign Broadcast Information Service, and National Institute of Standards and Technology Research Library — as well as Statistics Canada and Public Accounts of Canada — its materials were ostensibly produced for the public, but haven’t always been easy to find. It total, there are more than 500,000 documents in the collection.

“Governments have created an abundance of information and put it in the public domain, but it turns out the public can’t easily access it,” says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive. He gives one of the series of talks that comprise “Building Democracy’s Library,” the launch celebration that took place last week and that you can still watch in the video above. Its proceedings go into quite a bit of detail about the efforts of acquisition and organization that went into this project, as well as the nature of its mission. For this isn’t just an effort to document democracy, but to strengthen it by making the information it produces available as conveniently as possible to as many citizens as possible. And no matter the country of which you count yourself a citizen, you can start browsing Democracy’s Library here.

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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.

10,000 Vintage Recipe Books Are Now Digitized in The Internet Archive’s Cookbook & Home Economics Collection

“Early cookbooks were fit for kings,” writes Henry Notaker at The Atlantic. “The oldest published recipe collections” in the 15th and 16th centuries in Western Europe “emanated from the palaces of monarchs, princes, and grand señores.” Cookbooks were more than recipe collections—they were guides to court etiquette and sumptuous records of luxurious living. In ancient Rome, cookbooks functioned similarly, as the extravagant fourth century Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome demonstrates.

Written by Apicius, “Europe’s oldest [cookbook] and Rome’s only one in existence today”—as its first English translator described it—offers “a better way of knowing old Rome and antique private life.” It also offers keen insight into the development of heavily flavored dishes before the age of refrigeration. Apicus recommends that “cooks who needed to prepare birds with a ‘goatish smell’ should bathe them in a mixture of pepper, lovage, thyme, dry mint, sage, dates, honey, vinegar, broth, oil and mustard,” Melanie Radzicki McManus notes at How Stuff Works.

Early cookbooks communicated in “a folksy, imprecise manner until the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s,” when standard (or metric) measurement became de rigueur. The first cookbook by an American, Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery, placed British fine dining and lavish “Queen’s Cake” next to “johnny cake, federal pan cake, buckwheat cake, and Indian slapjack,” Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald write at Smithsonian, all recipes symbolizing “the plain, but well-run and bountiful American home.” With this book, “a dialogue on how to balance the sumptuous with the simple in American life had begun.”

Cookbooks are windows into history—markers of class and caste, documents of daily life, and snapshots of regional and cultural identity at particular moments in time. In 1950, the first cookbook written by a fictional lifestyle celebrity, Betty Crocker, debuted. It became “a national best-seller,” McManus writes. “It even sold more copies that year than the Bible.” The image of the perfect Stepford housewife may have been bigger than Jesus in the 50s, but Crocker’s career was decades in the making. She debuted in 1921, the year of publication for another, more humble recipe book: the Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church Ladies’ Aid Society of Chicago’s Pilgrim Cook Book.

As Ayun Halliday noted in an earlier post, this charming collection features recipes for “Blitz Torte, Cough Syrup, and Sauerkraut Candy,” and it’s only one of thousands of such examples at the Internet Archive’s Cookbook and Home Economics Collection, drawn from digitized special collections at UCLA, Berkeley, and the Prelinger Library. When we last checked in, the collection featured 3,000 cookbooks. It has grown since 2016 to a library of 10,600 vintage examples of homespun Americana, fine dining, and mass marketing.

Laugh at gag-inducing recipes of old; cringe at the pious advice given to women ostensibly anxious to please their husbands; and marvel at how various international and regional cuisines have been represented to unsuspecting American home cooks. (It’s hard to say whether the cover or the contents of a Chinese Cook Book in Plain English from 1917 seem more offensive.) Cookbooks of recipes from the American South are popular, as are covers featuring stereotypical “mammy” characters. A more respectful international example, 1952’s Luchow’s German Cookbook gives us “the story and the favorite dishes of America’s most famous German restaurant.”

There are guides to mushrooms and “commoner fungi, with special emphasis on the edible varieties”; collections of “things mother used to make” and, most practically, a cookbook for leftovers. And there is every other sort of cookbook and home ec. manual you could imagine. The archive is stuffed with helpful hints, rare ingredients, unexpected regional cookeries, and millions of minute details about the habits of these books’ first hungry readers.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2020.

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

Vienna’s Albertina Museum Puts 150,000 Digitized Artworks Into the Public Domain: Klimt, Munch, Dürer, and More

Though it may not figure prominently into the average whirlwind Eurail trip across the continent, Vienna’s role in the development of European culture as we know it can hardly be overstated. Granted, the names of none of its cultural institutions come mind as readily as those of the Prado, the Uffizi Gallery, or the Louvre. But as museums go, Vienna more than holds its own, both inside and outside the neighborhood aptly named the Museumsquartier — and not just in the physical world, but online as well. Recently, the Albertina Museum in Vienna put into the public domain 150,000 of its digitized works, all of which you can browse on its web site.

“Considered to have one of the best collections of drawings and prints in the world,” says, the Albertina boasts “a large collection of works by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), a German artist who was famous for his woodcut prints and a variety of other works.” Here on Open Culture we’ve previously featured the genius of Dürer as revealed by his famed self-portraits. We’ve also featured visual exegeses of the art of Vienna’s own Gustav Klimt as well as Edvard Munch, two more recent European artists of great (and indeed still-growing) repute, works from both of whom you’ll find available to download in the Albertina’s online archive.

Those interested in the development of Dürer, Klimt, Munch, and other European masters will especially appreciate the Albertina’s online offerings. As an institution renowned for its large print room and collections of drawings, the museum has made available a great many sketches and studies, some of which clearly informed the iconic works we all recognize today. But there are also complete works as well, on which you can focus by clicking the “Highlights” checkbox above your search results. To understand Europe, you’d do well to begin in Vienna; to understand Europe’s art — including its photography, its posters, and its architecture, each of which gets its own section of the archive — you’d do well to begin at the Albertina online.


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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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