Online Collections in the Public Domain

April 21st, 2023

By John Marks, Curator

People who visit and support museums are generally curious. By curious, I mean “might enjoy spending time going down the rabbit hole of online collections.” Large museums and libraries have been digitizing their collections for some time. Now they are sharing images that are either out of copyright, or the organizations are waiving the copyright. You can save images and do anything with them, including altering them into new artwork.

A friend recently shared an article  “Smithsonian Places 4.5 Million Historic Images Into the Public Domain.” The Smithsonian is not one place, but 21 museums, the National Zoo, nine research centers, and libraries and archives.

quilt with colored diamond shapes

Cathedral Window Quilt, Viola Canady, 1992

You can search these images at Open Access means that the Smithsonian waives all copyrights and images may be used or altered without their permission. Not knowing where to start, I began with the “Just browsing” link below the search box. This brought up both a great variety of images and museums that hold them. (Can anyone name the 21 Smithsonian museums from memory?) Once you have a museum name, you can search that one’s collection. If you’re searching for a particular subject, it will give results across all museums and libraries.

The article mentioned other websites with public domain online collections. Perhaps the Smithsonian of the Internet, in 1996 the Internet Archive began saving web pages. Their URL is easy to remember: With over 804 billion web pages, they also have free books, movies, music, and much more. One collection is “Cookbooks and Home Economics,” with entries from the 19th and 20th centuries, and in multiple languages.

silver French medal with woman and symbols of France

1848 medal celebrating the French Republic

Collectively, 14 museums in Paris have put over 350,000 art works online at They are free to download and reproduce. Using the “see all” function, I was surprised by the many pages of coins, medals, and tokens in the collection. The website also has “thematic discovering” groupings that showcase images and objects as virtual exhibits.

The New York Public Library,, has over 935,000 items online. If you wish to freely use images, over 320,000 items are in the public domain. There is a “Show Only Public Domain” filter you can use in the search field. The collection ranges from Farm Security Administration photos, like this one, to Broadway to almost 50,000 cigarette cards. Be aware that the New York Public Library doesn’t censor content and the collection includes images of racism, sexism, crime, and death.

In my opinion, nothing replaces seeing original photos, books, artifacts, and art in person. However, museums and libraries can never display all their collections at one time. These websites, and many others, offer access to anyone with Internet access. (There is a digital divide in this country. Not everyone has Internet and computer access, but that is another article.) I hope you enjoy exploring!

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2 responses to “Online Collections in the Public Domain”

  1. Sharon Best says:

    Very interesting and helpful! Thanks, John.

  2. Inga-Mai (Pim) Larsson-Kovach says:

    Thanks John.
    It is really cool to be able to watch all these images from major museums.

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