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British Library Image Collection

Explore three centuries of rare images

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In December 2013, the British Library quietly opened a treasure chest of historical material: It released more than 1 million images from its collection of books dating from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to Flickr Commons.

The digitized images are stripped of context other than basic information about the 65,000 books in which they appear, span 10,238 pages on the website, and are available for use in the public domain.

The collection is bewildering in its scope. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of centuries-old maps; storyboards for Shakespearean plays; photographs taken during expeditions to the "cannibal islands"; cathedral plans; mechanical sketches; geological diagrams; sheet music; an 1899 analysis of Central Asian weather patterns; and untold illustrations taken from children's' books, popular magazines, adventure novels, poetry collections, fairy tales and histories.

Officials at the British Library don't even know what all is represented in the trove, which was compiled using a program called the "Mechanical Curator" developed by the British Library Labs project.

One reason for releasing so many images to the public was to invite amateur sleuths to help fill in the historical gaps and provide deeper interpretations.

The full collection is available at flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary, and a manifest of the collection is posted at github.com/BL-Labs/imagedirectory.

Happy (history) hunting.