Five years ago, Microsoft began scanning the collection of one of the world’s largest libraries: The British Library. Home to more than 14 million books, it’s rivaled only by the Library of Congress in terms of size.
On Friday, we saw some of the first fruits of that digitization. The British Library released more than a million images from its books to the public domain, publishing them to Flickr Commons for anyone to use or adapt. The images come from 46,000 books from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, by authors both revered (Dickens!) and forgotten.
The library’s release comes at the end of a year full of similar, and similarly massive, donations. In August, the J. Paul Getty Trust gave almost 5,000 high-quality images of art—including works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Durer—to the public domain. In the spring, too, the national museum of the Netherlands released over 125,000 images of its works for free use online.
The library is trying out something of a new tack with this release, though. While it knows the title, author, and publishing year of its books, it doesn’t know the content of the images—what they actually depict. So early next year, it says it will roll out a crowdsourcing website and ask the public for its help in identifying the content of the images.