Historic images brought into 21st century after being posted on Flickr by British Library

More than a million pictures have been scanned from texts published in the 17th to the 19th centuries

Nick Clark
Sunday 15 December 2013 19:40

A “sacred” Chinese tiger drawn in a 19th-century travelogue, a photograph of a “typical” American student in 1894 (with “stooping head, flat chest and emaciated limbs” ) and an etching satirising the sale of gin.

These striking images are among a treasure trove of more than a million pictures that have been scanned from books held by the British Library and which have just been posted on the photo-sharing website Flickr.

The images are from texts published in the 17th to the 19th centuries, meaning that any copyright claims have expired. And the library is encouraging the public to use them however they like, saying they are for anyone to “remix and repurpose”.

In addition, curators hope that amateur enthusiasts will help provide more information about many of the images that remain a mystery.

Nora McGregor, a curator on the digital research team at the British Library, said: “There are so many images that we don’t really have a great sense of all the gems that are in there.”

The images, taken from 65,000 volumes, run from maps to illustrations, from satire to decorative letters, mathematical treatises, nursery rhymes and wall paintings. Since they were put online on Friday, the images had received a staggering 6.1 million views. “The response has been thrilling,” Ms McGregor said.

Blog posts about individual works, including the tiger, have already popped up online, and one user has written a piece about the Iranian images in the collection. “People are finding this stuff and we don’t know how. We hope they tag it. We’re trying to monitor the activity,” she said.

Among the images picked out by the library’s digital curators is a striking illustration taken from The Eventful Voyage of HM Discovery Ship ‘Resolute’ to the Arctic Regions, as well as the illustrated lettering from the Comic History of Greece and The Fashionable Lover, a comedy play from the 1770s.

They were digitised by Microsoft which gave the scanned images back to the British Library to release.

The project was started as part of the “Mechanical Curator” which was born out of the British Library Labs project. The digital research area of the library looks at the collection as a source of data, Ms McGregor said, so researchers can analyse things “at scale”.

The institution is to launch a crowdsourcing application early next year to make it easier for the public to get involved. There has already been talk about using the images for data visualisation projects, such as how the styles of drawing have changed over the course of centuries.

“There are very few datasets of this nature free for any use, and by putting it online we hope to stimulate and support research concerning printed illustrations, maps and other material not currently studied,” said the blog post announcing the image uploads.

Ms McGregor added: “As a librarian, Friday was the best day ever. You can’t get better than this as someone who wants information to be out there.”

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