The invention of photography gave us one of the richest digital media, which also became of inestimable worth for archival purposes. Approximately a century later, the internet came along and offered us a medium via which we were able to access a virtually infinite amount of information and images. In this article, we have compiled our favorite sources of historical images and archival photos on the internet, be it for personal consultation or for use in your projects!
Only in our ancestors’ wildest dreams could anyone access an entire world’s worth images from different places and times within seconds. The internet has also allowed us to archive documents, texts, illustrations, and maps predating the advent of photography. Obtaining, preserving, and digitalizing historical documents and images is so important to preserve our collective human memory that it has developed into a bona fide science, with universities offering studies in the field of “Archival Studies” to individuals who are interested in the art of archive-making and maintenance.
It is thanks to the work and dedication of organizations and institutions within this field that we now also have vast amounts of digital archives accessible via the internet. Do you want to re-live NASA’s Apollo Missions from over 50 years ago? A professional has remastered these photographs. Do you want to see the most eventful images of the year? Getty Images has got you covered. Does the niche of 90’s rave culture fascinate you? Archival images have been compiled into a book to offer a fascinating glimpse into this party scene.
You may also need to use these images for more than just personal consultation, and you should rejoice in the fact that millions of them are distributed free of copyright, or have legally become part of the Public Domain as per current Copyright Laws. This means that you can legally use and reproduce these images for whatever purpose you may need. The uses are endless: if the license of an image is “royalty free”, it means you can even print them on merchandise and sell them, 100% legally.
Now, on to our favorite sites to find historical images and archival photos
The Library of Congress – Free to Use and Reuse Sets
The Library of Congress offers you sets of images that are free to download and use. The images are downloadable in many sizes, including large formats, and come in themed collections for the pleasure of browsing or to quickly find what you need. These images are just a fraction of the Library of Congress’ full digital collections. The only difference is that for the rest of the collections, it is your responsibility to check what the usage rights of each image are.
The British Library Images Online
A little over a decade ago, the British Library made millions of images accessible to the public by releasing them under a Public Domain license. While the website link above claims that several of the images are “free to download, except those in Copyright”, we sadly find that the website does not make it easy to find just those that are free given the lack of filter to surface this content only. Luckily, they have also put their free, Creative Commons-licensed content on Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.
The Public Domain Review
A gem of a website compiling public download material from over 152 institutions (in other words, an archive aggregator). You can get lost exploring all the fascinating images you have, which they categorize under “Images” and “Film”, and further compile into themed collections. You can also browse by image tags. Once you find an image, check the usage rights, then download it with a right click -> download. The only downside is the slow loading times you can experience.
Open Content Images from the Getty Search Gateway
Getty offers a rich online archive of digital media drawing from the J. Paul Getty Museum Collection database, the Getty Research Institute Research Library Catalog, the Getty Research Institute Collections Inventories and Finding Aids, and the Getty Research Institute Digital Collections. The link above narrows the collection down to the “Open Content” images, which are free for you to download. While the page looks a tad outdated, the filters are very comprehensive and will allow you to navigate by media type, topics, author names, places, and archive sources.
The Commons by Flickr
In Flickr’s own words: “The key goal of The Commons is to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives”. Images are added by a couple dozen of participating institutions, and users help enrich the library by adding tags and comments to them. Participating institutions attest to the fact that the images have no known copyright, which makes you feel safe about using the downloaded images in your projects. There is a search bar where you can start navigating this archive. Images are also categorized as part of collections and galleries. User-generated tags also assist you in finding what you need. PS – if you work for a cultural heritage institution, you can get in touch with Flickr to contribute to this fantastic online resource.
Wikimedia Commons is a project from the Wikimedia Foundation (the same foundation behind Wikipedia). It offers a repository of images, audio, video, and other media as well. The files you find here are all of “open” nature, meaning that they all fall under non-commercial licenses (be careful: it doesn’t mean that they are all free to use in all types of projects). The licensing includes Creative Commons, and it is your responsibility to verify if you have to attribute the original creator, if you can use the image commercially, etc. This is simple given that each file has these details clearly marked. The labeling system can work in your favor (by classifying top categories such Photographs, Images, or Public Domain files) or against you given the hierarchical labelling system that can take you to hyper-niche sub-sub-sub-sub categories with very few files available. The search bar will be your best friend here, though we did find that sometimes sub-categories were helpful in finding interesting media. There are currently over 87 million free-to-use media files, which are community-managed by Wikimedia volunteers. You can also join the community and add your own media!
The National Gallery of Art offers images available for free download.
Art lovers will rejoice with this one. Over 50,000 images from the National Gallery of Art (located in Washington D.C.) have been made available under this institution’s “open access policy”, which, by considering them to be part of the public domain, become free for anyone to download and use in both personal and professional projects. The page linked above takes you directly to the collection search results for which an image download is available. Images are categorized by the artwork’s nationality, time span, art style, the photographic process… as we said, an art lover’s dream!
Europeana is a massive archive offering +50 million documents from institutions from all over Europe. This includes books, film, music, as well as images, artwork, and photography. This archive offers a search engine as well as themed collections to make your navigation easier. When searching for something, you can further filter the results by theme, type of media, the usage license (including licenses that allow you to use it for free, or which allow free usage with conditions like an attribution), the providing country or institution, the image orientation, among others. Another fantastic feature is that you can filter results by language, and the website itself has translations in all European languages. One final neat feature: you can create an account and curate your own galleries and collections.
The Europeana Archive offers +50M documents from across European institutions
We hope that these resources are helpful– be it for your own personal consultation or for any personal or professional project you may have. The uses for these images are endless. You can use them as a desktop background, print them on merchandise for your Etsy shop, use them for digital collages, print them as unique greeting cards, or remix them into something new. You are only limited by your own imagination!
We are very thankful to the amazing people who dedicate their time and effort to digitalizing and uploading all this visual material to these online archives. This list is intended to be ever-growing, so get in touch with us if you have any suggestions to add to it!