Many authors know about sites like Pixabay and Flickr that offer images which are free to download and use, some with no restrictions and some with requirement for attribution or other rules. But you may not know about the rich archives of public domain images available from some of the world’s preeminent libraries and museums.
What is public domain?
Think of public domain as the flip side of copyright. Once a work of art is no longer covered under copyright regulations, it enters the public domain and can be used without restriction. Copyright law is complicated, but in a straightforward case like a book published under your own name, copyright lasts for seventy years after your death. The idea is that you and your immediate heirs should be able to profit from your creative genius, but after that time, a work is part of a common cultural heritage that we all own and can adapt for creative reuse.
This applies to artwork and images as well, so most artwork produced before 1923 should be in the public domain. However, this does not apply to the digital images of artworks that many museums and other institutions have on their websites. While the artwork itself might be in the public domain, the digital images are not. In recent years, though, more museums and libraries have begun to open up their digital archives.
Why does this matter for authors?
You may not be thinking about it while you are buried neck-deep in words during writing or revision, but when you finally lift your head up and start thinking about publishing and marketing your book, you will quickly realize that you need images to help you get the attention of readers. Your book cover, your author website, your Facebook page, your advertisements, every Tweet and post and newsletter – all of them will perform better with images.
With a little pleasurable digging, you can find striking images that will give readers visual cues about the subject and mood of your book. Who knows, you may even find inspiration for your next book. (Medieval wound man is begging for a novel, or even a juicy subplot.) Here are three of my favorite sources, plus a curated site for the easily overwhelmed. Happy browsing!
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Met is one of the most recent institutions to join the public domain club. Their Open Access Policy clearly outlines which images can be downloaded for reuse and links to some collections they have curated, including, ahem, “Met-staches.” Going to their search page allows you to limit your search to public domain images and then drill down by period, location, and more.
THE BRITISH LIBRARY
The venerable British Library has one of the largest public domain collections, consisting of over a million images. To search, navigate to their Photostream on Flickr, enter your search term and select the option to search only the British Library’s stream. There is treasure here, but the collection is not easily searchable, and you may, depending on what you are after, have to put in some time digging. (Polar bears, however, are easy to find.)
THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
Start your tour of the public domain collection with the NYPL’s nifty little visualization tool, which shrinks all of the images down to the size of a tic tac, allowing you to scroll through the entire collection by date and then click on individual images to enlarge them. Their search tool allows you to browse by category, type, and date, as well as search by topic. Like the British Library collection, many of the NYPL’s images are book illustrations, which work beautifully as a background for pull quotes. See, for example, this website I designed for Elena and Michela Martignoni, who write historical fiction based on the lives of the Borgias.
PUBLIC DOMAIN REVIEW
When I need a breather and have lost my appetite for the terrifying scrum of bitter political diatribe and adorable kid pictures that is my Facebook feed, I head straight for Public Domain Review, which serves up unparalleled clickbait like “The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man,” who is “sliced, stabbed, punctured, bleeding, harassed on all sides by various weaponry.” The Public Domain Review focuses on “the surprising, the strange, and the beautiful,” with deeply researched, well-written, and lavishly illustrated articles on just about everything under the sun. Sign up for their newsletter or Instagram feed for periodic stimulation or browse their curated collection, which is pulled from many different institutions.