May 23, 2022

British Library Adds 1 Million Public Domain Images Taken from 17th, 18th, and 19th Century Books to Flickr Commons

You can access the 1,000,000 images here.

From the BL’s Digital Scholarship Blog:

These images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft who then generously gifted the scanned images into the Public Domain. The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.

Coming Soon

We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these ‘unseen illustrations’. The images were plucked from the pages as part of the ‘Mechanical Curator’, a creation of the British Library Labs project. Each image is individually addressible, online, and Flickr provies an API to access it and the image’s associated description.


We plan to launch a crowdsourcing application at the beginning of next year, to help describe what the images portray. Our intention is to use this data to train automated classifiers that will run against the whole of the content. The data from this will be as openly licensed as is sensible (given the nature of crowdsourcing) and the code, as always, will be under an open licence.

The manifests of images, with descriptions of the works that they were taken from, are available on github and are also released under a public-domain ‘licence’. This set of metadata being on github should indicate that we fully intend people to work with it, to adapt it, and to push back improvements that should help others work with this release.

Read the Complete Blog Post

You can access the 1,000,000 images here.

See Also: Learn More About the Mechanical Curator Project

Additional Ways to View Images

See Also: Mechanical Curator on Tumblr (“Rediscovered artwork from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th Century books.”)

See Also: Mechanical Curator “Bot” on Twitter
The bot tweets one image each hour.

Background: The British Library and Microsoft (Where the Images Come From)

The images come from a British Library deal with Microsoft that was first announced 8 years ago (November 4, 2005) when MSFT said it was partnering with the BL to to digitize public domain titles and make them available via Microsoft Live Book Search.

Ten days earlier (October 28, 2005) Microsoft had just announced their plans to partner with an Open Content Alliance led project with the Internet Archive and Yahoo to only digitize public domain titles.

Things Change

Less than three years later, on May 23, 2008, Microsoft announced they were ending their book digitization plans as well as Live Book Search.

You can read the Microsoft blog post announcing that were “winding down” their digitization and book search plans here.

Five days later (May 28, 2008) the BL told the IDG News Service they they would continue to digitize items:

Microsoft formed a partnership with the library in November 2005 to fund the scanning of up to 100,000 out-of-copyright 19th century books, or around 20 million pages. The scanning work will continue for a while longer until the last 40,000 books are finished, said Neil Fitzgerald, digitization project manager.”

Additional details in this announcement from the BL (May 28, 2008). It notes that the Microsoft project was only one of 15 digitization programs at that time.

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.