A list of digital collections of early printed books that are primarily hi-resolution public domain images (descriptions of copyright and licensing are simplifications focused on early modern materials, linked to full information).1I interpret vague statements of “we conform to the law” in light of Bridgeman v Corel, which states that faithful reproductions of public domain works are themselves public domain. With European Union copyright laws ruling similarly, I don’t know why any of these libraries are holding images hostage behind non-commercial licenses. (I do know why. $$.) I am not a lawyer, of course, so you should rely on your own—or your legal counsel’s—judgement here. Know of other open digital collections I should include? Email me.2Want 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 November 14, 2019)
open digital collections
- Beinecke (Yale); use the advanced search option to narrow the date range and to add other facets (public domain)
- Boston Public Library has loads of stuff in Digital Commonwealth and on Internet Archive; you can also jump into the Barton Shakespeare Collection, and if you’re looking for early English drama, this is the place to start (“no known restrictions”; see items for details)
- British Library, bless its heart, is all over the place (statement of rights including the many exceptions). Discovering Literature is where to start (Shakespeare & Renaissance and Restoration & 18th Century; copyright details on each item; right-click in the viewer to download). But while they have a great collection of festival books, it’s “©British Library.” User beware.
- Clark Memorial Library (UCLA) has imaged their collection of early modern annotated books and they’re easy to browse (download medium-ish images, but contact for higher resolution; public domain, info on each record)
- Folger Shakespeare Library is all or nothing and the interface isn’t intuitive but worth struggling with (CC BY-SA); there’s some useful info on Folgerpedia that can help locate cover-to-cover texts from ESTC or elsewhere. Their British Book Illustrations is only illustrations, not full books, but it uses icon class descriptions and is worth exploring on its own platform.
- The Getty has of course a lot of prints as well as a good collection of books; filter for “GRI Digital Collections” and other facets as needed (public domain); also on Internet Archive
- Ghent University Library has mostly but not only books printed in the Low Countries; you can browse hi-res images of hand-press books easily in their straightforward interface; very hi-res images in various formats and as either single images or the whole book (CC BY-SA and clearly stated on each image record); see also the Antwerp and Flanders aggregators below
- The Harry Ransom Center (U Texas Austin) has increased its digital collection of early modern printed works, including sometimes multiple copies of the same work; browse by collection (Gutenberg, English broadside ballads, rare books) or search across the whole thing (public domain, see individual records)
- Harvard (including Houghton); browse by collections to get information and links about the collections; browse early modern items using faceted search; you can also use the dedicated image search (open in Mirador to download ok-sized jpgs; public domain)
- Heidelberg University; search the incunable, VD16, VD17, and VD18 collections or browse them by author; browsing is awkward but once you’re at a book, the interface is easy (public domain; indicated on item record)
- Huntington Library‘s collections of printed books are rich, including a ton of ballads and of course some key copies of early Shakespeare, and their platform is easy enough to use with usually hi-res images available (public domain)
- University of Illinois’ Project Unica—focused on unique copies—is now at HathiTrust; right-click to save medium-resolution images (public domain; info in catalog record)
- The John Carter Brown Library has amazing early American collections (both North and South American) as well as European works that are about the explorations of the American continents; access via Luna or Internet Archive (CC BY-SA)
- KU Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) has lots of early printed books in its “Digital Heritage” collectcion; I like to browse via “material type“; clicking on a title will open the catalog record, then click on the link to Teneo in the “online” section; download as pretty hi tiff images or as hi-res jpeg2000 (usually public domain; terms listed on individual items)
- Library of Congress is best browsed by sorting for books and an online format of images and then using the date facets; downloads in a range of formats including often hi-res tiffs and jpeg2000 (public domain)
- National Library of Medicine includes collections of unique English imprints, medicine in the Americas, and incunabula; you’ll need to “view book” and then right-click to download as images (public domain)
- National Library of Scotland includes early printed works, including some important early Scottish pieces; digitization standards vary (CC BY; listed on individual items; full statement of terms)
- Newberry Library has a digital platform in beta that allows you to browse all items (use the date facet feature) or by collection; they also have a lot of stuff on the Internet Archive, including their amazing French pamphlets collection and Italian religious broadsides (public domain)
- New York Public Library is a bit overwhelming but do a date search for the early stuff and then play around with genre limitations; there are also some relevant collections to browse (license on individual items; lots of public domain images, but the status of many is undetermined; see this general guide—and kudos to them for such a clear user info!)
- University of Oklahoma has a rich history of science collection that is well worth exploring (uses the IA viewer, so beware the two-page viewer which sometimes shows the right of an opening on the left side; right-click to download; if you need hi-res images, use the contact form; public domain)
- University of Pennsylvania includes Print at Penn; view “other” collection to find the early modern items; set to full-size and right-click to save (no statement of rights other than that they comply with the law)
- 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; if you want images, you can only download single pages at a time, but there are also pdfs of whole items (public domain)
- Smithsonian Libraries is on Internet Archive with just so many early books; you can also search their own site or browse their Image Gallery, but I find both hard to navigate (public domain)
- Wellcome Library has a gradually developing beta platform that’s easier to search than to browse; once you’re at a record, viewing and navigating is easy; right-click to download (public domain; listed on each image)
- Antwerp might seem like just a city, but it’s a city chock full of printed heritage and so its DAMS pulls together rich access to the city’s goodies under a big public domain tent, including the Hendrik Conscience Collection and Museum Plantin-Moretus. There’s also an aggregator for Flanders, which of course overlaps, but Flandrica.be doesn’t work from a public domain assumption and some institutions lead to different platforms and terms under the two. Plantin-Moretus, for instance, is better accessed through the Antwerp DAMS since its materials are public access there, but its collections reached through Flandrica.be are personal use only.3Once something is placed in the public domain, it stays in the public domain, so if the same book is in both places, it doesn’t really matter what the more restrictive license says. I haven’t, however, gone through and checked to see if the material duplicates across the two collections or if different items appear in different homes. But KU Leuven’s digital collections are more easily navigated and downloaded (public domain!) from Flandrica.be than from the university site, so both are worth poking around.
- The Biodiversity Heritage Library has more than you might think and the interface is easy to use; I like to browse by year and downloading is easy (instructions for hi-res downloads; public domain with specifications on each item)
- HathiTrust is better for searching than browsing; quality of imaging varies and some works can only be downloaded from within partner institutions (although non-partners can download individual pages); generally with more trustworthy metadata and an easier interface than other aggregators (right-click to save as image; generally public domain, though read the Google exception and 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).
- Primeros Libros de las Americas brings together copies (sometimes multiple copies) of books printed in the Americas in the 16th century in an interface that’s easy to browse and navigate (right-click to save jpg, although in some cases you can get a larger image by going to the owning institution; public domain)
- Libraries in Switzerland are brought together in e-rara.ch, which is delightfully easy to browse by date and to use in general (public domain)
- Catalogs! Many union catalogs include links to digitized copies; if you’re looking for something specific, those can often be the best place to start. You can browse my list of catalogs of early printed works (licensing varies)
IA downloading info
instructions on downloading image files from Internet Archive, via the Smithsonian:
- Click on the link for “Read Full Screen” or “Find in: Internet Archive” located below the book. You should be redirected to a URL like this: http://archive.org/details/butterflybookpop00smholl – find the page you want, and open the image in a new window. Look at its URL and you should now know the page image’s filename, usually something like butterflybookpop00smholl_0008.jpg
- Go back to the original URL and replace /details/ with /download/ like so: http://archive.org/download/butterflybookpop00smholl
- Now, copy the last part of that URL, which is the book’s identifier. put a / at the end of the URL and then paste in the identifier, followed by _jp2.zip/ (n.b. the trailing slash is important) your URL will now look like http://archive.org/download/butterflybookpop00smholl/butterflybookpop00smholl_jp2.zip/
- Hit enter, and you should now see a list of all the individual JPEG2000 images in the book. Download the filename for the image you want.
- If you want to download the unprocessed jp2 (which often shows more detail and usually includes the stand holding the item and often a target card) follow the same process but the last part of the url should be _orig_jp2.tar/ (eg, https://archive.org/download/psalteriumcumapp00ratd/psalteriumcumapp00ratd_orig_jp2.tar/)
Wait, I can’t believe you don’t include ……
The following notable collections aren’t included in my list above because they don’t meet my set of terms, primarily because they’re non-commercial or personal use only:4This doesn’t list everything that doesn’t meet my criteria because that would be crazy, but it does list the notable ones. Why do I hate non-commercial licenses? Because a) public domain is public domain and institutions should stop eating up the commons; it’s not even profitable anymore to be so restrictive. And b) NC licensing is way more restrictive than people tend to realize: a site that is free to use and lets people use its materials freely still cannot use images with NC terms if that site—like EarlyPrintedBooks.com—is associated with a commercial product.
- Digital Bodleian is chock full of great things, so many of them, and their interface is great. 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). Since my work is not within an educational establishment and it is often connected to my book, I am SOL here, but you might not be.
- 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 University Library is chock full of great things, an easy interface, and often super contextual information—especially the Royal Library and Lines of Thought collections—but it is, alas, non-commercial only (see terms and licenses on individual items).
- English Broadside Ballads Archive (U California Santa Barbara) is an amazing resource that is CC BY-NC; note however that EBBA includes ballads from Houghton, the Huntington, and NLS, libraries that make their items available on their own platforms as public domain images.
- Gallica, the digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, is awesome and confusing: the terms say it’s non-commercial use only and individual items are labeled public domain. I’m keeping it in limbo until they clear it up.
- Linda Hall Library has great science- and technology-related collections but is CC BY-NC-SA.
- Das Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum der Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek (the Munich DigitiZation Center or MDZ in either language) is chock-full of relevant material, some of it hi-res and some of it less ideal, but it’s all for non-commercial use only.
- Aggregators I don’t love:
- Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is not great for browsing, but it does lets you search across a lot of American libraries at once (downloadable format and licenses vary according to institution)
- Europeana is hard to search and hard to browse; even though it brings together a lot of European collections, it’s still a last resort (their hints might help; downloadable formats and licenses vary according to institution)
- Google Books. Should we talk about clean metadata? And being able to download image files? Well, then. Proceed at your own risk.
- 1I interpret vague statements of “we conform to the law” in light of Bridgeman v Corel, which states that faithful reproductions of public domain works are themselves public domain. With European Union copyright laws ruling similarly, I don’t know why any of these libraries are holding images hostage behind non-commercial licenses. (I do know why. $$.) I am not a lawyer, of course, so you should rely on your own—or your legal counsel’s—judgement here.
- 2Want 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.
- 3Once something is placed in the public domain, it stays in the public domain, so if the same book is in both places, it doesn’t really matter what the more restrictive license says. I haven’t, however, gone through and checked to see if the material duplicates across the two collections or if different items appear in different homes.
- 4This doesn’t list everything that doesn’t meet my criteria because that would be crazy, but it does list the notable ones. Why do I hate non-commercial licenses? Because a) public domain is public domain and institutions should stop eating up the commons; it’s not even profitable anymore to be so restrictive. And b) NC licensing is way more restrictive than people tend to realize: a site that is free to use and lets people use its materials freely still cannot use images with NC terms if that site—like EarlyPrintedBooks.com—is associated with a commercial product.