NYPL // Public Domain
NYPL // Public Domain

11 Highlights From the New York Public Library’s New Public Domain Collections

NYPL // Public Domain
NYPL // Public Domain

Today, the New York Public Library released more than 180,000 images in the library’s collection, making high-resolution scans available to the public for free. The digitized collections now available in high resolution include papers from James Madison and Walt Whitman, photographs from New Deal artist programs, city plans for Washington D.C., scans of The Green Book (a guidebook to African-American-friendly establishments published until the 1960s), and manuscripts of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji

In addition to plenty of historic photographs and documents relating to New York City and the United States at large, the collection contains an exhaustive amount of broader historical resources, such as images of the Russian Imperial family and the German Reich. Here are 11 of the hidden treasures: 

1. HENRY DAVID THOREAU’S 1846 PENCILED MAP OF WALDEN POND: 

Henry David Thoreau via NYPL // Public Domain

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau moved into the house he built near Walden Pond in 1945. This is one of his hand-drawn maps of the area.

2. DEPRESSION-ERA PHOTOS FROM ARTISTS LIKE WALKER EVANS AND DOROTHEA LANGE:

Image Credit: Dorothea Lange via NYPL // Public Domain

Dorothea Lange’s Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California, one of the images created for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, became an iconic image of the Great Depression. 

3. LEWIS HINE’S PHOTOGRAPHY OF TENEMENT LIVING IN THE EARLY 1900s: 

Living rooms of a tenement family near Hull House, Chicago, 1910.” Image Credit: Lewis Wickes Hine via NYPL // Public Domain

Hine photographed tenement conditions on the Lower East Side in New York and near Hull House in Chicago. The NYPL collection also contains his photographs from Ellis Island. 

4. STEREOSCOPIC IMAGES OF THE KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH:

“Women prospectors on their way to Klondyke [Klondike].” Image Credit: B.W. Kilburn via NYPL // Public Domain

Starting in 1896, thousands of people flocked to the Yukon to try to strike gold. Not all of them were the male prospectors we often imagine, as this 1898 image shows. 

5. MAPS OF THE EARLY UNITED STATES:

“Map of the Indian Territory, Northern Texas and New Mexico.”Image Credit: Sidney E. Morse via NYPL // Public Domain 

The digital collections include a large selection of historic atlases and maps dating back as far as the 1500s. This one shows Indian territories around the Rocky Mountains, as well as the boundaries of Texas and New Mexico, as they stood in 1842. 

6. AN ENDLESS ARRAY OF CIGARETTE CARDS:

Image Credit: NYPL // Public Domain

In the mid-19th century, tobacco companies included illustrated collector’s cards with their products that depicted everything from Aesop’s fables to contemporary starlets. The one above features Lynn Gilbert, a film star considered one of “Today’s Beauties” by the Abdulla & Co. tobacco company. 

7. NAZI PROPAGANDA PHOTOS FROM WWII: 

Besides the people's gas mask, there are also gas defenses created for German children.” Image Credit: Heinrich Hoffman via NYPL // Public Domain

Propaganda photos from the studio of Adolf Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, were collected in four separate albums, one published each year from 1939 through 1942. The library found an incomplete set of these images in their archives a few years ago, and sorted, translated, and captioned them. This photograph depicts how children can be protected from poisonous gases aside from traditional masks. 

8. PORTRAITS OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Image Credit: NYPL // Public Domain

The library has several photos of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Here she is with her husband, Eugen Jan Boissevain, in the 1920s. 

9. CIVIL WAR PHOTOGRAPHS:

Rebel works in front of Atlanta, Ga. No. 2.” Image Credit: George N. Barnard via NYPL // Public Domain

This image of Civil War Atlanta comes from an 1866 book of the images of official military photographer George Barnard. He photographed General William Tecumseh Sherman’s campaigns in the South, including the infamous March to the Sea and destructive passage through the Carolinas. 

10. A FIRST DRAFT OF UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

Image Credit: Harriet Beecher Stowe via NYPL // Public Domain

The library holds part of a handwritten first draft of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. This page is from the first chapter. 

11. 19TH CENTURY MEDICAL PHOTOS

Attitudes obtenues dans la catalepsie sous l'influence de diverses excitations.” Image Credit: Albert Londe via NYPL // Public Domain

This image from 1893, part of the library's collection of historic medical images, shows “attitudes obtained in catalepsy [a nervous condition] under the influence of various stimuli,” such as different chemicals like chloroform or camphor. 

Explore all the collections from the New York Public Library for yourself here. For archive lovers with an artistic inclination, NYPL Labs is launching a paid residency program for artists and designers interested in creating new works using the public domain collection and the NYPL's other digital materials. 

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E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
AI Is Decoding the Vatican Secret Archives, One Pen Stroke at a Time
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image

The Vatican Secret Archives comprise 600 collections of texts spanning 12 centuries, most of which are nearly impossible to access. The Atlantic reports that a team of scientists is hoping to change that with help from some high school students and artificial intelligence software.

In Codice Ratio is a new research project dedicated to analyzing the vast majority of Vatican manuscripts that have never been digitized. When other libraries wish to make a digital archive of their inventory, they often use optical-character-recognition (OCR) software. Such programs can be trained to recognize the letters in a certain alphabet, pick them out of hard-copy manuscripts, and convert them to searchable text. This technology posed a challenge for the Vatican, however: The many older texts in its collections are written by hand in a cursive-like script. With no spaces between the characters, it's impossible for OCR to determine what's a letter and what isn't.

To get around this, the research team at In Codice Radio tweaked OCR software so that it could recognize pen strokes instead of letters. The OCR can identify the pen strokes that make up letters in an alphabet by looking for spots in the text where the ink narrows rather than presents full gaps between characters. The strokes aren't very useful on their own, but the software can combine the pieces to form possible letters.

To help the software perform even better, researchers recruited students from 24 Italian high schools to check its work. As the researchers explain in their paper, the students were shown a list of acceptable versions of a real letter, such as the letter A, and were then given a list of characters the software had guessed might be the real letter. By selecting the characters that matched the acceptable versions, they were able to slowly teach the software the medieval Latin alphabet.

All this information, plus a database of 1.5 million Latin words that had already been digitized, eventually brought the OCR to a place where it could use artificial intelligence to identify real letters on its own. The final results aren't perfect—a good portion of the words transcribed so far contain typos—but Vatican archivists are a lot better off than they were before: The software can identify individual handwritten letters with 96 percent accuracy, and misspelled words can still provide important context to readers. The goal is to eventually use the software to digitize every document in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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