Bring Zing to Your Posts with Public Domain or Creative Commons Images

Passenger Pigeons by Audubon 1840-1844 from NYPL digital collections Owl person drawing by W.M. Thackeray from Thackerayana (1875) - page 387 Woman stirring a saucepan on a stove, lithograph by Charles Philipon, from the Wellcome Collection Winslow Homer Gulf Stream - from the Metropolitan Museum of Art DP140858 Banana, from Flora de Filipinas by F.M. Blanco, ca 1880 Cacao from Flore Medicale by Chaumeton et al, 1820.08 Unswept floor mosaic from ancient Rome Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr Hiroshige woodblock print - Fugu and Inada Fish, from the series Uozukushi DP123586 Heade - Hummingbird and passionflowers DT2080 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art "Her Bitter Awakening", book cover from the British Library

Main Reading Room at the U.S. Library of CongressSoon after I started blogging 10+ years ago, I learned about Creative Commons licenses, which some creators apply to their own work so it can be shared with certain restrictions (note that this blog is currently licensed with a CC BY-NC-SA 2.5, and my Flickr collection also has a CC license).  After figuring out the mechanics, I started using CC-licensed items to add visual elements to my blog posts (the first CC image I used was a lovely black and white photo of a crow in flight from Mark Lorch’s collection for my random musings about a Los Angeles street).  I continued to use Creative Commons art, mostly from Flickr, when I wanted a picture of a carrot, or a wheel of cheese, or something similarly relevant to my post.

As time went on, new collections of images appeared and I learned about existing collections, and started to use them as sources of the art for my blog. Eventually, however, my tastes changed slightly and I started being attracted to the ‘vintage’ material in the archives. I liked adding quirky or unusual images to my posts — instead of a picture of a finished dish that I was writing about, I’d include something from an old seed catalog or a fairy tale (as in my post about turnip pickles and turnip greens).

In the spirit of the Creative Commons, I’ll share a few of my favorite sources and list some of their good and bad characteristics:  Flickr Commons, Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CCSearch, Wellcome Collection image library, and Google Books/Hathi Trust.

"Her Bitter Awakening", book cover from the British LibraryFlickr Commons

Flickr Commons is a huge archive of images contributed by scores of museums, historical societies and other groups — participants include the British Library, the Internet Archive, and NASA. These groups have scanned and uploaded printed materials, historical photographs, postcards and images from books. Often, they don’t know what they are uploading and ask for help in tagging the photos with subject, geography, era, and so forth.

Sometimes you’ll find something on the first or second page of search results. Other times a search will be a gateway to more or better images — and perhaps even a series of posts.  Some images are extracted from books or magazines, and so if you see something interesting and want to see more like it, click through to the image, then look below the picture’s left side. In some cases, you’ll find links that lead you to the source of the image (e.g., “View Book Page”) or a link to all of the images extracted from that publication (e.g., “View All Images”).  Often you can download the book so that you can browse through it off-line and clip what you want (or read the text that explains the image).

The good:  It’s massive, with many gems and offers the opportunity to dig deeper to the source material.  The vast majority of the material is available for expansive use (public domain or “no known copyright restrictions”).

The bad:  It can be bit overwhelming to get thousands of hits for a search.  Many of the archives are unedited (e.g., dozens of photos of rockets from an aerospace company). The Commons can also be hard on the eyes, as some of the providers use computational techniques to find, tag and extract their images, and consequently your search will occasionally turn up graphic images of medical procedures or maladies that can be disturbing.

Tacos for 89 cents from Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr
11 cents change from Robert Couse-Baker’s Flickr collection


Many Flickr users (including me) apply a Creative Commons license to their uploaded photos that allows re-use.

To find the licensing terms for a photo, look below the “Taken on” tag, where you’ll see one or more icons followed by a link to the full description — for example, an encircled C and “All rights reserved”, or an encircled person and “Some rights reserved.”  A click on the license icon will give you the full terms.  On Flickr, you always should read the license terms — some are for non-commercial use only, some are “share alike” meaning your content should have the same kind of license.

The good:  A seemingly endless collection of photographs.  Flickr’s search tool lets you filter by license so that won’t need to slog through tons of photos (or be disappointed by spotting outstanding pictures that are all rights reserved).

The bad:  A lot of uninteresting or poor quality images (casual snapshots, for example).

Wikimedia Commons

Unswept floor mosaic from ancient RomeWikimedia Commons is part of the Wikipedia empire, with thousands of photos, drawings, painting and other graphics contributed by people from around the world (one of my long simmering to-do items is to upload many of the images I have found in other places to Wikimedia Commons). Some images are copyright-free because of their age or source (e.g., pre-1923 or government produced); some are items donated to the public domain by their creator (like the photo to the right).  Many of the illustrations end up in Wikipedia articles.

The good:  A reasonably large collection of public domain images.  Relatively well organized (categories, sub-categories).

The bad:  Searches can be difficult. Many images have licenses specifying non-commercial use or “share alike,” which might be too restrictive for some users.

Hiroshige woodblock print - Fugu and Inada Fish, from the series Uozukushi DP123586

Creative Commons CCSearch

Creative Commons’ CCSearch is a prototype search engine that connects to several collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holland’s Rijksmuseum, the New York Public Library, and Flickr. Many of the works have a relatively new flavor of CC license, the CC0 1.0, which permits use, re-use, and remixing without restriction.

The search interface can be unpleasant at times (and doesn’t play nicely with my browser extensions), but if you get through the usability issues, you might find some gems. CCSearch helped me find the lovely 19th century Japanese woodblock print of fish shown here (It’s from the Met, which also has dozens of other Japanese prints).  I suspect that the Creative Commons team is talking with other museums about connecting CCSearch to their collections..

The good:  A connection to superb art collections from the Met and the Rikjksmuseum.  A portal to the open access work in Flickr and several other photography collections.

The bad:  Search interface needs work — reviewing search results requires far too much clicking and scrolling.

Wellcome Collection

Interior of head of garlic visualized by MRI (by Alexandr Khrapichev, University of Oxford, from Wellcome Collection)
Interior of head of garlic visualized by MRI (by Alexandr Khrapichev, University of Oxford, from Wellcome Collection)

The most recent addition to my list of image sources is the Wellcome Collection image library.

The Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library in London with a focus on health and medicine. Many of the images in their collection were gathered by Sir Henry Wellcome and his associates between approximately 1890 and 1936; the collection also includes more recent material, especially items related to health education.

Although the library has a medical focus, I have found some great images related to botany, general science (like the MRI of an ___ shown in the gallery), and 19th century England.

It’s a medical collection from many decades ago, so the warning from the museum is relevant:

You may find some of these representations of people and cultures offensive or distressing. On occasion individuals are depicted as research subjects, and the collection includes images of nakedness, medical conditions and surgical interventions.

The good:  Some interesting 19th century images (like the woman stirring a pot in the gallery) and photos from modern science (like MRI images of fruits and vegetables).

The bad: The collection is relatively small and focused on health and medicine.

Cacao from Flore Medicale by Chaumeton et al, 1820.08Google Books and Hathi Trust

Two similar (and often duplicate) sources of imagery are Google Books and Hathi Trust, digital libraries with plenty of copyright-free content (e.g., a book or magazine published in the U.S. before 1/1/1923).  In Google Books, I have found some beautiful collections of botanical paintings from the 19th century (like the cacao painting to the right) and some etchings of men who worked on whale ships. Hathi Trust was the source of information and images for a post I wrote about cookbooks published during World War One.

The good:  A massive collection that spans countless subjects. Now and then you’ll find amazing gems, like the multi-volume Flore médicale, by F.P. Chaumeton et al. (the source of the cacao painting).

The bad:  Finding images can be difficult because they are primarily book libraries, not image libraries, so a search for “cacao” might being up dozens of books mentioning cacao that don’t have illustrations.  Additionally, many of the books in the collections (especially Google Books) are still protected by copyright, so full text access might not be available.

Closing Notes

No matter where you get your image, it is good manners to give proper credit. I typically put an image credit block at the bottom of posts with the source and license terms. Strictly speaking, public domain images probably don’t require attribution, but it’s helpful to your readers if you list where you found the image — your readers might want to look at the source (and perhaps discover similar images).  For complicated credits (like photos from Flickr users), I built a formula into a spreadsheet that converts the user ID, photo title, license type, and so forth into HTML for easy pasting into my blog post.  When using photos from Flickr, I always try to send a note to the photographer — people like to know when their images are used, and sometimes they will have a request to change the image credit slightly (e.g., link to a different site).

Of course, there are many more sources for images that I didn’t mention above. What are your favorite sources for public domain or creative commons images?

Disclaimer:  Copyright law can be complicated, especially when internet and international issues are considered, so if you are planning to use internet images for a commercial publication or film and have doubts about the licensing situation, consulting a copyright expert wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Image Credits

(Originally published April 23, 2017. Updated in 2018 with information about the Wellcome Collection.)

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