British Library adds one million images to Flickr

In what could well become one of the most interesting image collections on the web, the British Library has announced it has uploaded over one million images to Flickr from 65,000 books spanning from the 17th to the 19th century

Image taken from page 582 of ‘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’. By various authors [1894]

In what could well become one of the most interesting image collections on the web, the British Library has announced it has uploaded over one million images to Flickr from 65,000 books spanning from the 17th to the 19th century…

Covering a huge range of subjects, the collection includes images of book illustrations, diagrams and maps as well thousands of decorative elements such as borders and illuminated letters. Each image is tagged by year of publication, its unique library book code – indicating the source of where it came from – and the author of the publication (where relevant).

By way of an introduction to this selection of often strange and wonderful imagery, the library’s digital research team has curated a small number of images in a Flickr set from which some of the images included here are taken.

Image taken from page 93 of ‘On the Domesticated Animals of the British Islands: comprehending the natural and economical history of species and varieties; the description of the properties of external form, and observations on the principles and practice’

Image taken from page 78 of ‘Songs for Little People’. With illustrations by H. Stratton

The images have been uploaded to Flickr Commons “for anyone to use, remix and repurpose,” wrote Ben O’Steen on the library’s Digital Scholarship blog on Friday.

O’Steen also explained the additional part to the project, which will rely on the input of users. This follows on from the launch of the British Library Labs’ Mechanical Curator tumblr blog, where “randomly selected small illustrations and ornamentations, posted on the hour”.

Image taken from page 298 of ‘On English Lagoons’. Being an account of the voyage of two amateur wherrymen on the Norfolk and Suffolk rivers and broads. With an appendix, the log of the wherry “Maid of the Mist”. Illustrated, etc

“We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these ‘unseen illustrations’,” he says. “The images were plucked from the pages as part of the ‘Mechanical Curator‘, a creation of the British Library Labs project. Each image is individually addressible, online, and Flickr provies an API to access it and the image’s associated description.

Image taken from page 295 of ‘The Works of G. J. Whyte-Melville’. Edited by Sir H. Maxwell. With illustrations by J. B. Partridge, Hugh Thomson, and others

“We may know which book, volume and page an image was drawn from, but we know nothing about a given image. The title of [the] work may suggest the thematic subject matter of any illustrations in the book, but it doesn’t suggest how colourful and arresting these images are.”

Image taken from page 25 of ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Originally published in “Dramatic Lyrics,” no. 3 in the series “Bells and Pomegranates”

Next year the library plans to unveil a “crowdsourcing application” which will enables users to help describe what the images portray.

“Our intention is to use this data to train automated classifiers that will run against the whole of the content,” says O’Steen. “The data from this will be as openly licensed as is sensible (given the nature of crowdsourcing) and the code, as always, will be under an open licence.

“The manifests of images, with descriptions of the works that they were taken from, are available on github and are also released under a public-domain ‘licence’. This set of metadata being on github should indicate that we fully intend people to work with it, to adapt it, and to push back improvements that should help others work with this release.”

Image taken from page 297 of ‘To the Snows of Tibet through China’, with illustrations and a map

“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. Given that the images are derived from just 65,000 volumes and that the library holds many millions of items.”

The library is welcoming questions about the project, and can be reached via email and Twitter O’Steen can be reached on Twitter at @benosteen.

Image taken from page 109 of ‘Saturdays to Mondays’, being jottings from the notebooks of K. F. Bellairs on some phases of country life, yachting, etc

“We want to collaborate with researchers and anyone else with a good idea for how to markup, classify and explore this set with an aim to improve the data and to improve and add to the tagging,” says O’Steen. “We are looking to crowdsource information about what is depicted in the images themselves, as well as using analytical methods to interpret them as a whole.”

The British Library Flickr phtotstream is at

Image taken from page 124 of ‘Death’s Doings’; consisting of numerous original compositions, in prose and verse, the contributions of various writers; principally intended as illustrations of twenty-four plates designed and etched by R. Dagley

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