Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Finding Digitized Historic Photographs

The topic frequently comes up on the Art Librarians of North America List (ARLIS/NA): What are the best places for finding digital reproductions of historic photographs? I thought I would cover this general topic in one post, and post another set of suggestions specific to researching regional architecture.

New York Public Library Digital Collections
NYPL has been setting the standard lately. They were amongst the first to make their digital reproductions available without watermarks and are continually raising the bar and adding more images.

The Open Archives Initiative is a Metadata Harvester developed by the clever folks at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois - Urbana/Champaign. Users can limit search by research type "IMAGE" and uncover photographs hidden in the "deep web," outside the attentions of Internet search engines.

Available by subscription to Tulane faculty, staff, and students, ARTstor is a digital library of over 700,000 images. One of the downsides of its scale is that image quality varies significantly. Includes the Archivision collections of 28,000 professional photographs of the built environment.

Wisconsin Historical Images
Why would I recommend Wisconsin for general digital photograph images? Well, the Wisconsin Historical Society's collecting mission was originally comparable to that of the Library of Congress: ALL of North America. Enter "Alabama" as a search term and you will see what I mean. This resource is to the credit of Michael Edmonds, who spearheaded the initiative to digitize their holdings.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It's big and messy, and not everything is cataloged, and not everything cataloged is digitized, and not everything digitized is digitized well.. but the collection is soooooo vast. Enter "Saarinen" as a search term and you will see what I mean.

George Eastman House Photography Collections Online
I know... who uses Telnet anymore? But this is a really good resource, and their holdings are incredible. Update (9.2008): Selections from GEH are now available through flickr.

Nearly twenty years ago, the art history community was voicing its concern when Microsoft's Bill Gates began purchasing the digital reproduction rights of the world's most renowned images. CORBIS now boasts some 100 million images, including historic photographs. One of their most notable collections is the famed Bettmann Archive. There is a catch: this is a corporate site. BIG Watermarks on images. And if you want a reproduction without the watermark, you have to pay a considerable amount. What is the advantage? These images are very high quality, print ready.

Getty Images
This frequently gets confused with the Getty Museum. It is not the museum... it is a company, a competitor to Corbis, founded by Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein in 1995. For historic photographs, search their "Editorial" section and designate "Archival."

Not to Forget Google:
You may be asking... what about Google? Well, the Internet search engines just aren't that great right now for finding historic images. Just check out the recently developed "Advanced Search" options in a Google image search, and you will see why. I think AltaVista still works best for image searches. Compare for yourself: enter "assassination john kennedy" in a Google search; then try the same in AltaVista (with a Color limit "Black and White") . I also think Ask Images is better than Google in this regard.

And for additional information:
In the United Kingdom, the Technical Advisory Service for Images (TASI) has developed some guidance for finding online images. To obtain their free guide click here and select the pdf icon.

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