Free Visual Fodder

Portland Oregon historic map
Portland Oregon historic map

For my very first paying job in graphic design industry, I worked as a production assistant at the prestigious Condé Nast’s House & Garden Magazine. Low gal on the totem pole, I was charged with the footwork task of researching visual elements (a task I loved!). With editor notes in hand about a specific topic, I would trek the few blocks from our massive Madison Avenue headquarters to the NY Public Library on 5th & 42nd. If I timed it right, I would be greeted by aromas from the food cart our front that sold caprese paninis to be enjoyed on a bench in Bryant Park, the 4 acre urban oasis behind the library. Belly full and mind open to see what visual fodder I’d soon discover, I’d venture up the giant steps past the majestic lions that flank the library’s entrance. Into the research department I would go, where I would easily lose hours searching the visual files by subject matter…a designer’s delight!

So I was thrilled to read today in the NY Times that the New York Public Library announced they have 180,000 of items in their Digital Collections that are now in the public domain with no permission required and no restrictions on use. It includes historic maps, botanical illustrations, unique manuscripts, photographs, ancient religious texts, and more. This is an unbelievably valuable asset for creatives to have instant access to and I am giddy with excitement about the possibilities that await.

For example, say I am working on a piece that relates to tulips. Typing in this keyword yields digitized artwork that could be anything from a historic advertisement to a photograph to an illustration. And I can use these as inspiration or support imagery for a particular project I am working on. (See attached images).

Or what about the exquisite gothic illuminated manuscripts from the 16th century Medieval Europe hand drawn by scribes in a monastic scriptorium before the invention of printing by moveable type made works such as the Gutenberg Bible more accessible to the masses?

Or for the cartography lovers out there, keying in “maps” returns nearly 25,000 results and specifically 1 historic image of Portland Oregon that I shall soon find an appropriate repurposing of.

For those simply curious, there’s a great visualization presentation of all of the content, which can be viewed by genre, century or color, which in itself is a beautiful display of art. The depth of detail that needs to be assigned to each digital image in order to make this available for display in so many different manners is amazing. One thing I have always loved about libraries is their attention to detail in categorizing content.

My mind is spinning with the possibilities that are now on the horizon that will allow me to combine my passion for art, history and graphic design into visually compelling and aesthetically pleasing work. The Library is encouraging novel uses of their artwork in a new program titled Remix Residency. They want to see what substantial, transformative and creative works can be produced using their digital collections and data, and the public domain assets in particular. How can these materials be used in an engaging way that hasn’t been seen before? Will the proposed projects help users see the collections in new ways? Individuals and collaborators can submit proposals by mid-February to be considered. Cannot wait to see what these will yield!

While I will certainly miss the hours spent in the quiet of the library amidst the chaos of the city, after enjoying a fresh pressed panini for lunch, I am beyond excited that the library and all of it’s unbelievably rich visual content is now just a click, instead of blocks or miles, away!

See for yourself, go forth, surprise, delight, create!


illuminated manuscript
illuminated manuscript

CITATIONS (not because they are required to reproduce these, but because the researcher in me is fascinated with the thoroughness by which the Library chronicles…and that the user can choose which citation format to use…at Reed Creative we follow APA style)

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. (1935 – 1945). Special Weeks – Tulip Week – Girls in costumes looking at tulips Retrieved from

Music Division, The New York Public Library. (1900 – 1900). Ma black tulip Retrieved from

Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. (1805 – 1816). Tulipa suaveolens Retrieved from

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. (1500 – 1525). Opening of text, with miniature showing grotesques and border design. Retrieved from

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. (1859). Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon. Retrieved from