early modern digital collections

A view of the Folger's vault (© @pleasant_peasants)
A view of the Folger’s vault (©pleasant_peasants)

A list of digital collections of early printed books with open-access reuse policies, ranging from public domain to CC BY-SA; descriptions of copyright and licensing are simplifications focused on early modern materials, linked to full information. 1 Know of other open digital collections I should include? Email me. (Want more peeks into the Folger’s collections? Follow @pleasant_peasants’s Instagram! My thanks to Pleasant for permission to use this photo of STC books in the vault.) (updated February 8, 2017)

open use digital collections


  • The Biodiversity Heritage Library has more than you might think and the interface is easy to use; I like to browse by year (lots of public domain with specifications on each item and clear info on what different statements mean)
  • Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is not great for browsing, although the timeline option helps, but it pulls together a lot of American libraries (their partners include some of the ones I list elsewhere on this page) that would be exhausting to search individually. Downloadable format and licenses vary according to institution.
  • Europeana is hard to search and hard to browse but it does aggregate from a lot of European collections (their hints might help, and the site is only beta, but the inability to sort results by date makes it hard to separate first editions from later ones)
  • Google Books. Should we talk about clean metadata? And being able to download image files? Well, then. Proceed at your own risk.
  • HathiTrust is better for searching than browsing; quality of imagining varies and some works can only be downloaded from within partner institutions (although non-partners can download individual pages); right-click to save as image not pdf. Early modern works are generally public domain, though see records for details.
  • Internet Archive has plenty of early printed material. Be very careful, though, that what you’re looking at is not a facsimile—don’t trust the metadata but verify in the book itself, at the front and at the back (see, e.g., this book which appears to be a 1541 Hungarian New Testament, but is actually a 1960 facsimile).
  • Short Title Catalogus Vlaanderen (STCV) lists pre-1801 Flemish publications (a geographically small but very rich area for the history of printing!); you can view only records with available digitizations; quality, licensing, and ability to download varies.
  • The Universal Short Title Catalogue in its original release covered European imprints through 1600; its beta site is expanding to cover through 1700. Both let you view only records that include links to open-access digitizations; licensing terms vary, but many are public domain or NC.

Wait, I can’t believe you don’t include ……

The following collections aren’t included in my list above because they don’t meet my set of terms: 2

  • Digital Bodleian is chock full of great things, so many of them. But their terms explicitly state that they are “only for non-commercial purposes, including but not limited to private study, research, or teaching and instruction within an educational establishment” [bold theirs; italic mine] and, just to be crystal clear, “For the purposes of this user licence, commercial purposes means any use of the content that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or monetary compensation. This includes any use on or in anything that is itself charged for, is connected with something that is charged for or is intended to make a profit.” Since my project is not within an educational establishment and it will be connected to a book that will be charged for, I am SOL here.
  • Biblioteca Nationale Hispánica, the digital collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de España, has great early print and manuscripts, but is mostly CC BY-NC-SA.
  • Cambridge’s University Library, especially the Royal Library and Lines of Thought exhibition, is also chock full of great things and often super contextual information, but it is governed by terms (no direct or indirect commercial use) that put it out of option for me.
  • Gallica, the digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, is awesome but only for non-commercial use.
  • Harry Ransom Center has some great public domain materials, but with the exception of Double Falshood and their First Folio, their early modern stuff is manuscripts
  • The John Carter Brown Library has amazing early American collections (both North and South American) but non-commercial use only.
  • Linda Hall Library has great science- and technology-related collections but non-commercial only.
  • The Max Planck Institut is CC BY-SA but the images, as far as I can figure out, are on the small side (e.g., 434 x 636 pixels)
  • University of Oklahoma’s History of Science Collections has long had lots of images of early printed book. They are in the midst of implementing a new repository (see the curator’s explanation). I’ll update this once more information about licensing and the launch happens. In the meantime, you can browse their beta site.
  • Die Sächsische Landesbibliothek – Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (aka SLUB, apparently) has a huge collection of early printed books, including 15th- , 16th- , 17th- , and 18th- century collections; do not browse the books in the English-language interface (CC BY-SA but downloadable only as pdfs)
  1. I have included a couple of collections that do not state their terms. I have interpreted their “we conform to the law” in light of Bridgeman v Corel, which states that faithful reproductions of public domain texts are themselves public domain. I am not a lawyer, of course, so you should rely on your own—or your legal counsel’s—judgement here.[]
  2. This doesn’t list everything that doesn’t meet my criteria because that would be crazy; it does list the notable ones, especially those that use non-commercial licensing.[]