a landscape lover's blog

garden tales from a Brit abroad

A million first steps

As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

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and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””

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Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

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and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:

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But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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7 comments on “A million first steps

  1. Heroica
    December 19, 2013

    Very interesting indeed, will try some research of my own, it all sounds promising. Thank you for letting us all know

  2. Angelica Gray
    December 20, 2013

    This is brilliant – thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. diversifolius
    December 21, 2013

    This is great news! thanks for sharing. It’s interesting even just for browsing with no specific goal in mind.

  4. jheald_public
    December 24, 2013

    Hi! I saw your comment on the British Library blog.

    You might be interested in a project WIkimedia Commons (the image-bank arm of Wikipedia) has got going, to make a subject and place index to the books in the collection, at

    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:British_Library/Mechanical_Curator_collection/Synoptic_index

    It’s early days yet — as of December 24 only about 1200 of the titles have been indexed, corresponding to about 12% of the images in the Collection, so the listings at the moment are still very very incomplete; and I don’t think anyone’s done any kind of systematic search for “India” as yet, at least not as of this afternoon — but with luck the index will grow and grow over the next days and weeks, if everyone finds and adds things.

    Commons also has up a full list of all the titles that were scanned to create the collection, at

    https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:British_Library/Mechanical_Curator_collection/Full_list_of_books

    – which may be an easier thing to look through than Flickr itself

    • landscapelover
      December 24, 2013

      Thanks for the information. I would be delighted to help with the indexing, and will turn my mind to how I can best contribute, as soon as the festivities are over!

  5. lula - botanical photography
    December 31, 2013

    Jill, this is great news, I will look at what can I contribute with. Will send more news after holidays. Just wanted to send you wishes for a Happy New Year 2014 and hopes that our paths cross this year. Lula

  6. Emma Reuss
    January 2, 2014

    thanks for this information, what a wonderful resource.

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