Millions of vintage images now available free online

Anyone can access the 12 million copyrightfree images that Mr Kalev Leetaru of Georgetown University in the US aims to upload onto Flickr. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF KALEV LEETARU
Anyone can access the 12 million copyrightfree images that Mr Kalev Leetaru of Georgetown University in the US aims to upload onto Flickr. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF KALEV LEETARU

Millions of vintage images are now available online, free for your download and viewing pleasure.

An American academic has started a project to upload 12 million copyright-free pictures onto image- hosting website Flickr. They come from scanned pages of library books published from 1500 to before 1922, when copyright restrictions reportedly kicked in.

The process is fast, searchable and free.

Mr Kalev Leetaru, 32, a Yahoo! Fellow in Residence at Georgetown University in the United States, has uploaded 2.6 million pictures culled from 600 million pages from about 1,000 libraries around the world. The pages were scanned by Internet Archive, a non-profit digital library in San Francisco.

They include images extracted from the collections of renowned institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, both in Washington, D.C.

SundayLife! understands that the National Library Board (NLB) in Singapore does not have a working relationship with Internet Archive.

Mr Leetaru says in an e-mail that libraries have been digitising out-of-copyright books for years. He says: "In principle, copyright applies only for a fixed number of years for each work. This means that the pool of copyright-free images can only increase in the future."

But so far, these books have been put up only as text-searchable works or hundred-page PDFs, with the images largely ignored, he adds. "Instead of reams of text, I feel books can be treated as galleries of images. Few people can read a book of Latin text from the 16th century but all of us can enjoy the images within."

It was a spontaneous desire last December to find images of the telephone over the years which prompted him to start the project. He says: "There were many books that were digitised about the telephone, but there was no way to see a collage of all the images. I realised I could help others in a similar situation."

He wrote a software program, completed in February, that could extract images from PDFs and upload the images onto Flickr. Each image is captioned with the title of the book it came from, page number, year of publication and the text before and after each image.

To access the collection, go to

Mr Leetaru worked by himself on the project on nights and weekends without funding. He expects to finish uploading all the images in the next six months. "I hope more libraries will contribute images so we can create a massive online gallery of the world's history."

An NLB spokesman says the National Library and the National Archives have digital collections on Singapore's history and heritage that the public can view for free. These include more than 13,000 digitised rare manuscripts and books; more than 24 million articles from 28 newspaper titles dating as far back as 1831; and more than 600,000 photographs, maps and building plans.

She says that they cover Singapore's history - pre- colonial, colonial and post-independence. This information has been used by students, professionals from the creative industries, broadcasters, writers, researchers and museum curators, she adds.

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This photo, published in a 1902 journal titled Agricultural Bulletin Of The Straits And Federated Malay States, shows rubber trees in the Botanic Gardens. The large trees on the right were planted in 1878 and were among the oldest trees here. Rubber trees were planted on the grounds in 1877 as an economically important crop. All the trees in the photo are no longer standing.


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This photo, apparently published in an 1892engineering publication, shows the former Kallang River Reservoir, now knownas Lower Peirce Reservoir, when it was being constructed. The reservoir was formed by building an embankment across the valley of Kallang River. It was opened in 1912 and reportedly supplied Singapore with nine million gallons of water every day.


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This photo, published in a 1921 book titled Strange Peoples & Customs, shows a street scene here. The author, Adelaide Evans, notes that there were between 300,000 and 400,000 people living here then. She writes: "Long ago there were many tigers on this island and even in recent years, tigers have been known to swim across from the mainland of Johor and hide in secluded places. Once a tiger came into the city itself and hid under the steps of the largest hotel. Probably the poor beast was as badly frightened as the people who saw him crouching there. But that was no place for a tiger, fresh from the jungle, as you yourselves know; he would have been much better off if he had not left his home in the wilds."


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This photo, published in a 1907 book on British Malaya, shows the former Government House, now known as the Istana. According to the building's website, it was completed in 1869 and handed over to the Singapore Government in 1959, when the island-state attained self-government. The building is now the official residence of the President of the Republic of Singapore and occupies more than 40ha of land in Orchard Road.


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This old map of Singapore, published in a 1899 book on the experiences of a sailor, shows the island's former shape as well as the names of several locations. The island's shape has changed drastically due to land reclamation efforts.


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