Public Domain Images Collections

Finding free, high-quality historical public domain photographs or illustrations for personal, educational, or nonprofit use can be daunting. Editors, instructional designers, and teachers know all too well the copyright issues and costs associated with using images in materials. However, over the past decade acquiring images has become a lot easier as organizations have been making their public domain image collections available online. Thanks to libraries and museums, thousands of free images are increasingly becoming available for any use, including commercial purposes.

For example, the New York Public Library recently released to the public about 200,000 public domain images from their online digital collection. Anyone can download and use high-res photographs, maps, manuscripts, sheet music, streaming video, and more. You don’t need to obtain permission from the NYPL or any other copyright holder to use the public domain materials. For more information, visit their info page on the collection, Public Domain Collections: Free to Share & Reuse.


Using the NYPL’s Search Options

Ballroom dancers, 1915
Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. “Irene and Vernon Castle partnering each other” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The easiest way to look for public domain images on their site is to do the following:

  1. Go to the collection‘s Home page.
  2. Click Browse.
  3. Choose Items.
  4. Once you’re in the Filtered search, click Shown Only Public Domain in the upper lefthand corner.
  5. Narrow your search by choosing the Topic, Name, Genre, Type, or any of the other options. You can also search by keyword(s) and choose public domain as an option.

Collections similar to the NYPL’s are:

The Public Domain Review

The National Gallery of Art Open Access collection

The Getty’s Open Content Program (choose “open content images”)

Yale Center for British Art

Like most history buffs, I’ve visited these sites and have gotten immediately sucked in, spending hours viewing photographs and illustrations related to dozens of topics. Even if you don’t plan on using the images for any particular purpose, you’ll still enjoy perusing these collections.

You’ve Found the Perfect Image—and It’s Free! But Before You Use It . . .

Be sure to read the organization’s policies on using their digital items. Even if you want to use content only for personal or educational purposes, it’s always best to double-check that you’re not violating any copyrights. Check the “Terms of Use” or “Acceptable Use Policy.” Email the organization or person to get further clarification if you need to. Unless the individual item information explicitly tells you that it’s in the public domain, don’t assume it is. I talk more about images in a related blog post: Using Free Images with Restrictions and Public Domain Images.

Helpful Resources:

What is Public Domain? (a nice, concise article by Yale Digital Collections Center)

The Public Domain  (article by Stanford University Libraries)

The book The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More by attorney Stephen Fishman is an awesome resource.

Click here to see my LiveBinder tab for more links to images collections.