Find free vintage photos and ephemera on the NYPL Digital Collections

The New York Public Library Digital Collections is a resource of 900,000+ digitized items, including photos, illustrations, manuscripts, texts and videos– with more being added every day!

There’s a huge amount of digitized art, photos, and texts from around the world, and a particularly good collection of images and texts about NYC itself. I like using the NYPL’s Digital Collection for stereograph photos and fashion illustrations, but there’s lots more to find and enjoy.

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The NYPL website is super easy to navigate and the search bar is fairly straight forward. However, there’s a few tricks you’ll need to know to get the most out of your time spent on the website:

How to search the NYPL Digital Collections for free junk journal ephemera

1. Check the front page for curated collections.

The NYPL Digital Collections front page has a surprising amount of useful links for those who love to browse. This is where NYPL keeps their curated groups of digital items, including a “recently added” strip with all the newest images and manuscripts.

Keep scrolling and you’ll find lots more collections for all kinds of topics, including: photography collections, public domain picks, NYC-specific collections, posters, maps and atlases, nature, fashion, and popular topics like LGBTQ+ history. Clicking on a sub-collection will bring you to a search results page where you can then filter results down further.

These curated collections are great for quickly finding large groups of images on a similar topic!

2. Filter for only public domain images.

If you’re planning on using your collage for commercial purposes, then only downloading and using copyright-free images is important. Luckily, the NYPL has a specific filter to make this process easier.

When doing a keyword search, you can select a tick box to show only the items that have been verified by NYPL as being in the public domain. It’s on the front page, on the main search bar. As soon as you type in a keyword, the tick box shows up right below:

(If you forget to tick it before doing a keyword search, you can also select it on the sidebar on the left of the search results page.)

This isn’t a perfect filter, as it’s dependent on NYPL staff having conclusively marked something as public domain. There are actually lots more items on the Digital Collections that are in the public domain, but NYPL staff haven’t marked them as such.

As a reminder, items created before 1928 are in the public domain in the United States, as their copyright has expired. NYPL as an institution has a different procedure for verifying an item’s copyright status, which is why you need the filter.

3. Check the Rights Statement for artistic usage rights.

If you’re unsure whether you can use something from NYPL Digital Collections in your art or not, check the Rights Statement at the very bottom of an item’s page. If NYPL owns the copyright to an item, you can still use that image BUT you have to write for permission and pay a fee.

If an item is probably in the public domain, but it hasn’t been verified by NYPL staff, then it’ll say something like this:

The copyright and related rights status of this item has been reviewed by The New York Public Library, but we were unable to make a conclusive determination as to the copyright status of the item. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use.

And of course, if it’s in the public domain as verified by NYPL the Rights Statement will say that as well and you’re free to use it as you wish.

4. Filter search results by media type for faster browsing.

NYPL Digital Collections has a lot of menus and music sheets in its online catalog, and while that’s great for some artists I don’t need THAT many menu covers in my collection.

Happily enough, the sidebar on the search results page has a few filtering options available, including filtering by media type.

There are two ways to filter search results to show only photos or illustrations: Genre or Type.

Genre relates to where the image is located within the larger digital collections library– for instance, Photographs, Prints or Illustrations– and is good for filtering to show specific types of items.

Type describes the physical aspect of the image, such as “still image,” “text” or “notated music.” It’s a little broader than Genre and can be good to use for more general searches.

Either one is fine for filtering to only show a specific kind of image, but I prefer using Genre.

If I’m only looking for photos and not illustrations, then I’ll click on Photographs rather than “still image” because it’ll quickly filter my search results to what I specifically want.

Be sure to also check out the Topics filter, which can sometimes show amusing sub-categories that might be skipped over in a regular search. For instance, a keyword search for Cats brought up “Animals in human situations” as a Topic, which sounds fascinating.

(You may fall down a rabbit hole looking at these topics! I take no responsibility if you find hours slipping away from you. 😉 )

5. Download images at the highest quality.

There are several download options available on the NYPL Digital Collections item page. The lower quality image files have obvious download buttons, under the “Download Options” area. Sometimes (most times), the high quality TIF format is hidden under a drop-down menu, right below the LQ download buttons.

All download options – High Res (TIF Format)

Because it’s so important to use high quality images in your digital art, it is VERY VERY important to download your desired image in TIF format and then convert to .jpg or .png. That’s the only way you’ll get something that won’t be blurry or pixelated once you add it to your collage, as every other format on that page will be less than 300 DPI.

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