Public domain deep diving

Adventures into the internet archive...

By: Phyllida Bluemel,   3 minutes

Image-researching a project just last week, I wound up in the internet archive – – searching for an appropriate copyright-free illustration amongst millions of digitized books. I found what I was looking for. And a lot more besides… is the largest online archive. It contains, for starters,  279 billion web pages and 11 million books and text. It has always been my first port-of-call for public domain material. But, there’s normally a deadline and a goal. I skip reluctantly past the strange glimpses that lie in wait, in links at the fringes of my research, wary of falling down an archival rabbit hole; abandoning the day’s to-do list entirely.

It’s a genuine hazard. Consider the time I was looking up Alexander Graham Bell’s aeronautic experiments – and came across his photographs of sheep nipples instead…

And so; for an afternoon’s Feeding, I decided to make like Alice, and allow myself to fall. Pursue the sheep nipples and boldly go. Follow my instincts and dart across the public domain, snatching at the weird, the beautiful and the rare. No research outcomes, no referencing, no theme. I’d be deep-diving the wreckage of material culture for untold treasures.

It’s a motivation and a compulsion that’s not unfamiliar to the people over at Public Domain Review, my personal heroes in this endeavour.

In their own words their aim, “is to promote and celebrate the public domain in all its abundance and variety, and help our readers explore its rich terrain – like a small exhibition gallery at the entrance to an immense network of archives and storage rooms that lie beyond.”

In the past, The Public Domain Review has unearthed some of my most cherished internet gems, sources of inspiration returned to again and again. Colour Analysis Charts by Emily Noyes Vanderpool is a personal favourite.

But why should Public Domain Review do all the work? I wanted to do some rummaging of my own. I wanted to explore the archives: uncut.

Stuck for where to begin, I retraced my steps to last week’s project – remembering the books I had wanted to get lost in but couldn’t. I had been looking for a folk image, an illustration to accompany a Cornish legend. In the hunt I had encountered a catchily titled oddity: Old Farm Fairies: A Summer Campaign in Brownieland against King Cobweaver’s Pixies: A Story for Young People. A twee fairy yarn, but illustrated with detailed and naturalistic observational drawings…

Fig 17: The Bell Shaped Turret of Pixie Globoss, of the Wheel Legion.

Once I was off, I was off. Following links back to library collections and clicking through  tags, I covered a vast territory – veering towards both the intentionally and accidentally beautiful.

There is a unique thrill to seeing something glimmer amid the scanned and catalogued pages. And through my rifling, I can almost smell the dusty pages. Except not quite. In the internet archive the physicality of the library experience is lost. I feel that loss. But without the need for white gloves or a reading room card, within minutes I can almost be face to face with a handwritten dedication from 1818. Or with a squashed and scanned NASA manual from the ’60s. The gloves are off.

And so, here’s a small exhibition of my findings. In the spirit of irresponsible browsing and reckless research, enjoy the images context and attribution free. Ready to fall down a rabbit hole of your own?

‘Life-like forms in meteorites’

I became especially enamoured with NASA’s Surveyor Program results. Bland title, stunning and strange images.

‘Pepper plant, subjected to 45 hrs in orbit aboard NASA’s Biosatellite II’

I emerged from my clicking and saving spree with my head spinning and my downloads folder busting at the seams. Free of copyright, these images are not only a reference for stories and ideas, but artistic media just waiting to be remixed and reworked. A scrapbook of project beginnings.

In the world of copywriting and editorial work it’s easy to feel bogged down in copyright tangles, hoops to jump through and smiling businessmen shaking hands on stock photo sites. A deep dive into the public domain hauls up a refreshing realisation of the wealth of history and image stowed away – waiting to be uncovered.

And as the tabs of books to be explored squash up together along the top of my browser, I get that giddying feeling that comes from standing on the beach, looking at the horizon, and realising there’s infinitely more ground (or sea) to cover.

Steel yourself, and dive in!

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