Currently reading : The British Library’s Photostream

The British Library’s Photostream

19 January 2014

Author : joseph-delaney

Image of Ear Stretchers and Ear Ornaments from page 458 of ‘Through Masai Land. Third edition’

Following the two-year Live Search Books project with Microsoft which saw thousands of out-of-copyright 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitalised, The British Library have recently released a million images back into the public domain in partnership with image sharing platform Flickr, who enabled the institution to share the images on a public, online profile for anyone to ‘use, remix and re-purpose’.

What the library has done is a huge step for the future of image research, not only allowing the unrestricted viewing of such artworks, which is arguably what such an institution exists for, but for them to be reused in any digital sphere for an infinitely wider appreciation and examination. To aid in this and due to the massive quantity of images shared, the library hope to seek the services of the newly increased hands at their disposal by launching a crowdsourcing application, using a collective voice to better understand each of the million images now on show.

What this means for the future of this kind of research is unclear. While the debate continues on the boundary-less nature of the Internet, our self-inflicted lack of online privacy as a result of our reliance on social media, the worry of the ever-increasing availability of pornography to teenagers or perhaps more pertinently to this, the questionable credibility of digitally sourced information, this is undoubtedly a positive move. The images are prevented from becoming forgotten and will hopefully further our understanding of the subjects they depict, covering such a breadth of categories, from travel and ethnography to mathematical diagrams and fashion.

However, the project has lead to much wider questions; as a Guardian piece on the project points out, though the project has for the first time made the images instantly available to an almost limitless audience, the question of their potential availability was never in question; the images, as their out-of-copyright status implies, were technically already available for use. The question this poses is will, or even can, other institutions and those in ownership of the rights of great artworks relinquish that power in favour of a greater appreciation of them now our interconnectivity has reached such an apex?

Image from page 1154 of ‘Unser Wissen von der Erde. Allgemeine Erdkunde und Länderkunde, herausgegeben unter fachmännischer Mitwirkung von A. Kirchhoff’

Sang Bleu spoke with James Baker, Curator at the British Library’s Digital Research team and a historian of eighteenth century Britain, about the project and what it hopes to achieve moving forward.

What was behind the decision to make the works available for the public to see as well as to use and re-use?

The release of these collections into the public domain and onto Flickr Commons represents the Library’s desire to improve knowledge of and about these images, to enable novel and unexpected ways of using them, and to begin working with researchers to explore and interpret large-scale digital collections. Although the volumes from which the book illustrations are taken have been in the public domain since the conclusion of the Microsoft Live Search Books project (2006-2008) and available through our Explore catalogue, the nature and scope of these images have been a bit of a mystery. It is only when we recently began looking into how many there might be that we realised the number exceeded the hundreds of thousands. At this point, we knew that making them available online in this manner was a priority.

What sources have the images been gathered from?

The illustrations are taken from a collection of our out-of-copyright books that were predominately, though not exclusively, published in the 19th century. Totalling around 65,000 volumes, they cluster around topics such as travel, geography, ethnography, geology and literature.


Image from page 540 of ‘Eine Weltreise. Plaudereien aus einer zweijährigen Erdumsegelung … Mit 120 Abbildungen und Plänen, einer Erdkarte und einem Anhang: “Die Igorroten.”’


How do you see the advent of digital media and the Internet affecting the nature of image and information sharing for institutions like The British Library?

In short it means we can get information to people quickly, irrespective of who they are or where there are at a given moment (though of course they will need some sort of internet enabled device!). A more subtle consequence of the advent of digital media and the internet is that when digital collections have a public domain status, institutions such as ours can – and in many cases are – posting such collections on platforms that are not our own, be they Wikimedia Commons, the Internet Archive, Europeana, or in this instance Flickr. By doing so we accept and embrace a loss of control that would only until recently have been unimaginable – but it is precisely the sort of thing we must do to deliver access that exploits the transformative potential of the World Wide Web.

The project’s crowdsourcing application asks the public to aid in researching and displaying imagery, what is behind the library’s wish for the works to be so readily available? what does it hope involving the general public in this will achieve?

We know very little about the 1 million images within these 65,000 digitised volumes. The digitisation process had captured the text on each page and the presence of the images (hence how we were able to identify them and disaggregate them from each page), but no data which describes what those images actually contain. Flickr Commons provides an established platform for the necessary crowdsourcing activities required to first organize and describe the images, to search, tag and comment on individual images in order to provide us, and everyone else, with a better understanding of what these images portray. In less than a month since release around 30,000 instances of tagging have taken place, numerous descriptive comments have been appended to the illustrations, and people are using the Flickr API to build crowdsourcing tools on top of the collection. This sort of people power and community activity is an essential first step towards us unlocking the secrets the collection contains.

Did anything particularly interesting or unexpected come to light during the process?

There have been many pleasant surprises along the way! For example, in September 2013, three months before releasing the images onto Flickr, we began posting an illustration on the hour, every hour through Tumblr. The Mechanical Curator, as we decided to call it, dips into images from the 65,000 volumes and posts them on a semi-random basis: ‘semi-random’ because before posting each new image the Mechanical Curator will look through a selection of images, decide if one is similar enough to the one it most recently uploaded (both visually and by metadata similarities), and then post that one. Quite quickly we noticed that the Mechanical Curator often fixated on flowers, illuminated letters, and marginal embellishments: elements of the volumes we had no idea were so prominent and which have played a part in our thinking ever since, especially in terms of how the image collection could be a useful resource for artists and creative industries.

Diagrams from ‘Lehrbuch der Landkartenprojektionen’

All images selected by Sang Bleu from The British Library’s Photostream.


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