How to access a million stunning, copyright-free antique illustrations released by the British Library

How to access a million stunning, copyright-free antique illustrations released by the British Library



August 01, 2015

What would you do with a million free images?

In keeping with its ambition to become the world’s most openinstitution of its kind, the British Library has released over a millionpublic domain illustrations and other images to the public throughFlickr for anyone to reuse, remix or repurpose. So far, these images, which range from Restoration-era cartoons to colonial explorers’ early photographs, have been used on rugs, album covers, gift tags, a mapping project, and an art installation at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, among other things.

The project, started in 2013, uses the library’s “Mechanical Curator” to randomly choose images or curiosities from public domain books in its digitized collection, which includes over 65,000 books from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The Mechanical Curator was created in the Library’s own lab, and you can see it in action on a Twitter bot, which publishes an image every hour.

Browsing the collection is thrilling, like venturing into a wild and treasure-filled thicket without a map.

Image taken from page 195 of 1780’s “Local Poetry. Songs and poems, relating to the town and county of Newcastle upon Tyne, or incidents connected therewith.”(The British Library)
Image taken from page 73 of “Letters from the Land of the Rising Sun,” from 1894.(The British Library)
Image taken from page 268 of “Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians, 1837.”(The British Library)

Crowd-sourced classification

This incredible visual bounty includes maps, drawings, illustrations, handwritten letters, geological diagrams, cartoons, comics, posters, and decorative scrolls.

While each image on Flickr links back to a PDF of the source book, the sheer volume means that librarians cannot have a good handle on the nature of each image that the Mechanical Curator has flagged. The random collection functions like the richest, most expansive Pinterest board on the internet—and it’s constantly growing. So the library hassought the public’s help to sort through and classify the cascade of images on Flickr.

“The response has been extraordinary, and we certainly didn’t anticipate that these hidden, undescribed images would appeal to so many,” said Ben O’Steen who is the technical lead of the British Library Labs and creator of the Mechanical Curator.

Dive in!

O’Steen tells Quartz that to date, the collection has garnered over 267 million views, and over 400,000 tags have been added to images on Flickr by users. Through a “tagathon” with the Wikimedia UK community, the Library discovered over 50,000 maps in the collection, which they are now in the process of fitting into a modern map.

(The British Library)
Image taken from page 65 of “Lays of Modern Oxford, by Adon,” from 1874.(The British Library)

Christmas labels, rugs, a Burning Man mural

So how have people been using the images? Because they are in the public domain and authors technically have no obligation to credit the Library, the sky is the limit. The images have been used on stickers, coloring books, games, music album covers and, inevitably a fewPhotoshop-enabled gags.

O’Steen said that personally he had made Christmas labels with some strange and unusual images in the collection. He also took an illustration of ships coming to shore and had it printed it on a rug.

Artists have also had some fun with the images.

A collage made from faces from the collection(Mario Klingemann)

 “We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these unseen illustrations.” Last year David Normal created four illuminated murals by remixing hundreds of Victorian-era images from the British Library’s collection. Normal’s work, “Crossroads of Curiosity” was exhibited at the Burning Man Festival last year, and is currently installed in the British Library’s outdoor piazza.

“Crossroads of Curiosity” by David Normal, exhibited at the Burning Man 2014 festival in Nevada.(The British Library)
Crossroads of Curiosity at the British Library.(Duilio Marconi)

Here’s the artist explaining how the “lightbox murals” were made:

“We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these unseen illustrations,” said O’Sheen. The Library is hoping that the rich trove of visual material will create alluring starting points for both scholarly and artistic projects.

Although the books were no longer protected by copyright, their obscurity was cloaking them from public attention. By making the images freely available, the idea is to give them back to the public, and thereby make them important again.


The strange story of a fertility drug made with the Pope’s blessing and gallons of nun urine

3 hours ago

The history of pharmaceuticals is full of chance encounters and quirky events. Alexander Fleming stumbled across penicillin when it grew as a mold in his messy lab. Viagra was intended to treat hypertension before researchers noticed, ahem, certain side effects. But perhaps no drug has as peculiar an origin story as Pergonal, a hormonal fertility treatment responsible for millions of babies.

Piero Donini, a scientist working in the late 1940s for the Italian pharmaceutical company that would later be known as Serono, was the first to extract and purify FSH and LH, the hormones that stimulate ovulation. The hormones are found in women’s urine, which is why pregnancy tests can be conducted on urine samples. After experimenting with urine from pregnant women, Donini discovered the highest levels of the hormone actually were in post-menopausal women. After menopause, when ovaries stop producing eggs, FHS and LS shoot up as the body tries to stimulate their production.

Donini called his new substance Pergonal, after the Italian “per gonadi,” or “from the gonads,” and speculated that it could be used to treat infertility. But while Donini had a drug, he didn’t have a market or method of producing it. His paper announcing the discovery languished in obscurity, according to A Tale of Two Hormones, a 1996 book published by Serono about the drug.

It wasn’t until a decade later that scientists exploring infertility heard of Donini’s work, and he was contacted by Bruno Lunenfeld, a Vienna-born, Israeli-educated medical student working in Geneva who was researching the use of human hormones to stimulate pregnancy. Lunenfeld made the case to Serono’s executives for producing enough of the drug to run a clinical trial. One problem: the drug would require thousands of gallons of urine from menopausal women. The young Lunenfeld went before Serono’s board of directors to lobby for the drug. As he later told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“I, just a kid, had to stand before the board of directors and ask them to help us find 400 menopausal women that would agree to collect their urine daily. I gave my lecture, they all applauded politely and then the chairman of the board got up and said: Very nice, but we are a drug factory not a urinal factory. I ran out crying.”

Lunenfeld, the son of a prominent Jewish family from Austria, said his interest in fertility was motivated in part by the need of Jews to replenish their population after the Holocaust. He was then introduced by a Serono executive to Giulio Pacelli, an Italian aristocrat and the nephew of Pope Pius XII. Pacelli, a Serono board member, took an interest in Lunenfeld’s work, and after additional meetings, returned with Lunenfeld to speak with the board of directors.

“Prince Pacelli gave exactly the same speech I had given 10 days earlier, but at the end he added one sentence: `My uncle, Pope Pius, has decided to help us and to ask the nuns in the old-age home to collect urine daily for a sacred cause.’ That, of course, convinced the board of directors immediately to help our research project with money and resources. I later discovered that the Vatican owned 25 percent of Serono.”

Soon, tanker trucks were hauling the pee of hundreds of nuns from Catholic retirement homes across Italy to Serono’s headquarters in Rome. It took about 10 nuns 10 days to produce enough urine for one treatment. While the urine of any post-menopausal women would work, nuns provided Serono with an extra advantage: Because hormones from pregnant women would contaminate the batch, it was critical there be no chance any of the women were pregnant. Working with nuns improved the odds.

In 1962, a woman treated by Lunenfeld with Pergonal in Tel Aviv gave birth to a baby girl, the first child born from the treatment. Within two years, another 20 pregnancies had been achieved with Pergonal, and by the mid-1980s, demand had grown so that Serono needed 30,000 liters a day to produce sufficient quantities of the drug. With shortagesappearing, the company began to synthesize the hormones in labs and the resulting treatment, Gonal-f, was first approved in 1995. Serono was acquired in 2007 by Merck, which continues to produce the drug today.


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