The British Library's release on Friday of over one million images into the public domain is a giant step forward in an ambitious digitization project that will delight scholars and steampunk fans alike. The images, posted to Flickr, are mostly black-and-white prints, illustrations, photos and maps randomly selected from 65,000 volumes that span the 17th through the 19th centuries.
Digitization of these volumes began in 2008 in conjunction with Microsoft. The Library has made descriptive metadata for the images available through github, and, following in the footsteps of institutions like NYPL and the Smithsonian, plans to crowd-source further descriptive information.
This initial public offering of images is presented with limited accompanying information, but through sheer quantity provides a panoramic snapshot of the British Empire in full force. There are plenty of the usual Victorian preoccupations on display, including fairy tales, colonialism, natural history, ethnography, archaeology, Egyptology, and Arctic and African expeditions. As a group, the images shed light on an era in which advances in printing technology and book distribution were often outpacing gains in literacy. But one gets a sense that much like today, this was a culture with a seemingly insatiable demand for new images, and an eager embrace of new technologies.
The slideshow below presents .001% of the images available online.