A million free images

This post was written by David Rooney

Just before Christmas, the British Library released over a million historical images from its printed collections onto the image-sharing website Flickr. The images are out of copyright and the library has made them available with a Creative Commons licence which, in short, encourages anybody to use, remix and repurpose them, so long as they respect a few ground rules.

This is a remarkable resource of imagery and will be a boon for anybody carrying out historical research – such as AHS members.

There are countless images of interest in this release, each one of which might augment an existing research project or prompt a new one. The beauty of archives such as this is the opportunity for lateral thinking. You might be researching a particular village, or writer, or building, or period. And you might find an image here that opens up new avenues of research.

The first four images I found are the result of searching for ‘clock’ or ‘clocktower’ – as you’d expect, lots of public clocks.

“ ... whether it be right or wrong!” from Richard Parkinson, The Old Church Clock, 1880 (British Library)
“ … whether it be right or wrong!” from Richard Parkinson, The Old Church Clock, 1880 (British Library)
“Clock tower at Aston Cross” from Robert Dent, The Making of Birmingham, 1894 (British Library)
“Clock tower at Aston Cross” from Robert Dent, The Making of Birmingham, 1894 (British Library)
“La famille Jacmart” from P. Berigal, L’Illustre Jaquemart de Dijon, 1832 (British Library)
“La famille Jacmart” from P. Berigal, L’Illustre Jaquemart de Dijon, 1832 (British Library)
“Clock tower at Aston Cross” from Robert Dent, The Making of Birmingham, 1894 (British Library)
“Clock tower at Aston Cross” from Robert Dent, The Making of Birmingham, 1894 (British Library)

But let’s say I’m interested in chronometers. Unfortunately there are no search returns for that word. But then I tried searching for ‘observatory’, and found this image.

“US Naval Centennial Exhibit 1876” from Naval Observatory, Narrative of the North Polar Expedition, 1876 (British Library)
“US Naval Centennial Exhibit 1876” from Naval Observatory, Narrative of the North Polar Expedition, 1876 (British Library)

It’s from a book on the North Polar Expedition, and it’s a photograph of marine chronometers on show in a US Navy centennial exhibit in 1876.

That led me to this catalogue of the objects exhibited. And on pages 79–81 there’s a remarkable and detailed description of the use of chronometers at the US Naval Observatory in the 1870s. Serendipitous discovery is a wonderful thing.

You’ll probably want to put aside an hour or two browsing these images – and a lot more time following the interesting leads they throw up! Happy hunting, and happy new year.

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