Just a few weeks ago a completely unrelated task led me to browsing the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections. There’s an entire website dedicated to hosting 879,488 items which have been digitized from NYPL’s collections. If you’ve scanned your own photos to create digital versions, you know this must’ve been an enormous undertaking (I assume ongoing—as archiving work is never done). Almost a million items, every single image is scanned by hand using an archivist’s gentle touch (eg wearing gloves and delicate handling). Then each image is assigned what is called ‘metadata,’ done by a human answering questions of the item like: who is the creator, the owner (if not the same), do I have permission to use this, when was it created, what search words might people use to discover this item, and so on. Before any of this happens though, there is usually a committee which determines the collections that are ‘worthy’ of digital archiving in the first place, but this is an aside. They are archived in their purest form; some even contain stains or rips on the original item, visible in the digital version.
The beauty of these collections is not only that they are freely available to the public, but many images are free to download and utilize for various purposes. Of course, each item varies in permissions for what you can do, so you always want to check (at the bottom of each image’s page there’s something called a “Rights Statement”).
I was truly blown away by some of the collections. It’s such a range of interesting material, from historic family papers to collections of photographs. There’s sheet music, postcards, newspapers, maps, blueprints, photography, illustrations, manuscripts, almost anything you can imagine. One collection is simply called: “Doors, NYC.” As you may have surmised, it is simply photographs of doors around New York City. The image titles are the location, for example, “1st Avenue between East 92ndStreet and East 93rd Street Even numbers.” The photographs were part of a book containing over three thousand images of doors. Other collections have more broad interest, like “Turn of the Century Posters,” or “Maps of North America.” A couple of my favorites included “Kaleidoscope: Ornements Abstraits” which is just a series of beautiful abstract kaleidoscope prints by artists Jean Saudé and Ad and M.P. Verneuil, and “Children’s Book Illustrations,” because it was a rabbit hole of neat vintage illustrations from classics and familiar fairy tales. I was also drawn to “Holiday Postcards,” maybe because of the approaching
season and the nostalgia these images summon.
If you’re interested in discovering this collection, you can find it at digitalcollections.nypl.org. In addition to these great collections available online, there’s also the Digital Public Library of America (dp.la—seriously, that’s all you type in your address bar) which contains almost 37 million–yes, million, images, texts, videos, and sounds documented by libraries and museums all over the United States (It is here that I found myself listening to a series of songs recorded in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s in a collection called “Wisconsin Folksong”). A mind-blowing amount of information available to you anywhere you can access the Internet. Much of this content is available to download, including some of the images and audio clips. I will warn you though, you may want to wait until you have a few hours to dedicate because once you start, you’re guaranteed to find at least something that piques your interest.