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Historic Photo Archives Online
So you’re writing a book or article that includes historic settings and subjects and you want to jazz it up with photographs, but your budget is limited. Where can you get free, high-quality historic photographs? The Internet, of course, a resource of seemingly endless riches. In our case we decide to try out a limited time istock promo code on a few particularly cool historic images that we found.
But if you don’t know where to look, you may spend hours wading through a mixed bag of search results and potentially coming up empty. Despite what many people think, search engines do not search the entire Internet. There are vast resources out there that you may never see without a targeted approach. That’s where the following websites become truly valuable for the amateur and professional historian alike. All of the sites mentioned here give you exactly what you are looking for, photos that are 1) free, 2) not copyrighted, 3) print quality, 4) okay for commercial use and 5) directly downloadable. Also keep in mind that if you exhaust the free, online options, most of the listed institutions will send you a high-resolution scan upon request. For a fee, of course.
Many university and state libraries, as well as historical societies, put photos online for download. If your subject is geographically specific, check the websites of local institutions first. For larger and more general collections, the following sites are excellent places to conduct your research. Always keep track of where you obtain photos, even those in the public domain, as it is appreciated and sometimes required that you provide attribution.
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress maintains an immense collection of historic photos with changing featured collections. They have a special Civil War collection, for instance, and one on historic American buildings. Search the Photos, Prints and Drawings collection by keyword. The details page contains information about the photographer, if known, and the circumstances surrounding the image and whether it is copyrighted or not. Most images in this collection, like all federal government agencies, are in the public domain. They are offered for download in a number of sizes and formats. Typically, you can choose between GIF, JPG and TIFF. For most print applications, you will want the largest file available, which is usually the TIFF image.
Another broad-ranging source of public domain photographs (over 1.3 million) is the Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library of music, documents, film and images. Because copyrights for older works have expired, you will find a lot of historic material on this website. Special collections include a gallery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, historic maps, classic record album covers and so many more unimagined treasures. If you like history and nostalgia, you could get lost for years browsing these pages. But if you know what you want, go directly to the image search and type in a keyword. Again, download the largest file available. Most will be JPGs, many of which are high quality enough for the printed page.
The National Archives
The National Archives has an extensive photo collection online. Search for images by keyword and the resulting thumbnails lead to Flikr pages. There are excellent scans of old photographs from the archives, including Matthew Brady photos of Civil War scenes, Native American heritage, railroads, landscapes, historic events, cityscapes, Elvis shaking hands with Richard Nixon and so much more.
When you need a picture of the surface of Mars or the Frankenstein Galaxy, go directly to NASA’s Image Gallery (images.nasa.gov) to get large, spectacular off-world photos, as well as images covering the history of the space program going back to the 1930s. Each photo has metadata associated with it to define its historical context. Anything posted here is in the public domain and free to use. However, NASA has explicit requirements for using their images for commercial purposes, so read the usage guidelines carefully to ensure compliance.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Association
For science and nature photos, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association hosts an extensive collection on its NOAA Photo Library website (photolib.noaa.gov). Most of the photos come in several sizes and are free to use. The size shown as “original” will be the largest. Of interest to historians, this site contains photographs of drawings, documents, cartoons, sketches and paintings in the categories of sailing, fishing and cartography. Some of these date from the 19th century. In particular, there are quite a few maps and survey documents from the Civil War era.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service photo gallery offers high-resolution TIFF images of historic significance in the areas of irrigation, water conservation, forest management and other natural resource related topics. A category called “historical” offers some surprisingly artistic photos of Dust Bowl devastation and migration. Searches can be filtered by state and there is an advanced search with additional options. Images are free to use, but the NRCS asks that you give attribution.
New York Public Library
The New York Public Library’s Digital Collections site contains over 700,000 items, including photographs, prints, maps, documents and streaming video covering a vast array of topics. In their special collections section, they have a huge group of stereographs and another of restaurant menus going back to New York’s Astor House breakfast menu of 1843. Included in the keyword search is a valuable option for searching only public domain images. After locating an image, look under “Download Options” for the high-resolution TIFF file. In cases where the TIFF is not available, it may be ordered for a hefty fee.
National Park Service
For beautiful pictures of nature and American history, the National Park Service has a comprehensive photo library. It also has a special site dedicated to historical photos, the Harpers Ferry Center, containing more than two million images covering a wide variety of subjects: park architecture, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Native American heritage, NPS personnel, roads and transportation, scenic views and much more. NPS photos can be found in several different databases on the Internet, sometimes downloadable in print-quality resolution, but often only good enough for digital applications. Also, there is a great deal of inconsistency, as the photos come from many different sources. For example, Yellowstone NP has a Flickr page where several gorgeous, high-quality photos can be downloaded. But on the Flickr page for the National Park Service itself, there is only one photo in the Yellowstone folder. The NPS is a good resource, but finding what you want can be challenging.
Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Smithsonian Institution Archives is another terrific source of historical photos. They offer images from museum exhibits, donated papers and expeditions around the world. Though the majority of the museum’s holdings have not been digitized, more are being added all the time, and they include a wealth of metadata, as you might expect from a museum. The subject matter in these archives is global. Searches can be filtered by expeditions to specific countries, specific museums and keywords. Resolution varies, but ranges from an acceptable 300 dpi to a whopping 3000 dpi. Check the copyright restrictions on each image before using.
United States Geological Survey
The United States Geological Survey has multiple websites offering historic photos. The main one is the USGS Denver Library Photographic Collection, containing excellent, print-quality scans depicting mining, mills, minerals, rock formations, pioneers and natural disasters.
New Old Stock
A site unrelated to any educational facility or government agency is New Old Stock, a collection of unrestricted vintage photos “from the public archives.” Those archives can be anywhere in the world and “vintage” is a somewhat imprecise word, but this is a good place to look if you want to widen your search beyond the U. S. It is worth pointing out that most of the photos here link back to Flikr. However, the curators have gone to a lot of effort to sift through the vast Flikr universe to find old photographs and those with a vintage look. On this site, you might also find photographs taken by contemporary photographers distributing their photos under the Creative Commons (CC0) license, a platform that allows artists to give their work freely to the world. There is no attribution required under this license, but it is always appreciated.
Finally, if you don’t want to go to each site individually or you aren’t sure which sites cover your topic, you can start with a specialized search engine.
Google Image Search – Go to Advanced Search, enter your keywords and any other relevant information, then, under Usage Rights, choose “Free to use or share, even commercially.” You might also want to specify “Large” under the size option, since print quality requires high resolution. Search results will include images from many known free-use archives, including Wikimedia Commons, a large and growing resource for photographs released into the public domain or through the Creative Commons license.
Every Stock Photo – This search engine combs through a variety of public domain and Creative Commons sites and millions of images. The results provide the source and allow a search by size, but any and all resolutions will be included.
USA.gov – this search engine will search for your keywords across a multitude of federal government photo archives hosted on Flikr, including many mentioned above, but also smaller departments that you may otherwise overlook. Most of the results are good enough quality for printing.
The number of historic multimedia resources being offered online for direct download and inclusion in your projects is growing daily. Libraries around the world are laboring to digitize their holdings so that soon the idea of a researcher traveling to a library to dig through musty folders will be a thing of the past. The resources listed here are essential to anyone looking for quality historical photos. They will save time and money while adding interest and visual appeal to your projects.