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The Library of Congress website is my go-to resource for free vintage images of people.
The LOC has a huge collection of photographs from the very early days of the camera, as well as illustrations, posters, prints, and more. It’s the first place I go when I’m looking for a new photo to use as a focus image on my collage or an antique book page to use as a background image.
Unfortunately, the LOC website is not always the easiest to use. It’s meant for researchers and scholars, so making use of its search function to find stuff for art can be a little tricky. Luckily, once you get the hang of it it’s fairly straight-forward to find things you want (though a little time-consuming).
Here’s 5 of my best tips for finding vintage photographs and illustrations on the Library of Congress website using basic search functions and filter options.
Tips for searching for vintage images on LOC.gov
1. Narrow down your search.
This one is the most helpful for filtering out unwanted items.
The standard search brings up EVERYTHING, including lots of text objects that won’t work well in a visual journal or collage. Narrowing down your search to only specific types of files immediately cuts out the extra stuff and makes it easier to browse through.
First, select type of media from the drop-down menu on the left of the search bar. It looks like this:
Then type in your desired keyword and hit “enter.”
I almost always select “Photos, Prints, Drawings” because that’s what I’m interested in, but Maps and Manuscripts can be useful for finding images for collage backgrounds.
Second, once you’ve searched for your keyword within that specific media type, scroll to the bottom of the left sidebar and select the filter under Access Condition that says “available online.” It looks like this:
The default search result shows you all “online” images, but that only means they have been CATALOGED online. Those catalog-only images are ONLY accessed from the physical Library of Congress building, which isn’t very useful for our purposes.
Using the “available online” filter will show you ONLY things that can download from home. Yay!
>>> Important note!! Click the “available online” filter every time you do a new search, as it doesn’t carry over from previous searches.
2. Check the related images.
Click on an image and it’ll pull up the catalog page. At the very bottom of the page is a section for related images. It looks like this:
These are pulled from subject headings, creators, and other image metadata. It’s a great way to find things that are near a keyword search.
For instance, a keyword search of “woman in hat” might bring up a selection of photos with just that. The related images might have photos of “girl in hat” or “child in hat” or “historical hats,” etc.
Another way to find related images is to…
3. Explore the Subject headings.
A “subject heading” is a category that images (and other documents) are filed under in libraries. Think of them like Etsy’s tagging system. They’re how the Library of Congress organizes their collection, and they’re usually pretty broad.
For instance, this circus poster image has the following subject headings:
- Circus Animals
- Circus Posters
The LOC search bar looks through subject headings, description text, and item metadata, but it’s not perfect. Depending on how detailed the descriptions and other keywords are on the item’s catalog page, they may or may not show up under a general “circus” keyword search. But clicking on the “circus posters” subject heading will bring up ALL those images, whether they have circus in their description text or not.
Subject headings are great for exploring different types of image mediums. If you don’t necessarily need a specific photo of something, but just want to look through a STYLE, then try looking through the subject headings.
Clicking on “Chromolithographs” brings up amazing late 1800s illustrations that I might’ve missed out on because I wasn’t necessarily searching for them (because I didn’t even know what they were!).
4. Look through subject collections and exhibitions.
These are librarian-collected groups of documents/images on all kinds of subjects, ready for browsing. Some topics include: historical eras, individual creators and collectors, famous historical people (such as Alexander Hamilton), art movements, and more! It’s similar to searching through the subject headings, only without having to click through keyword search results first.
>>> Secret bonus tip: here’s the page for Collections with Photos, which filters out all the collections with just written documents.
5. Keep an eye on the front page.
The Library adds new images and digital items to its collection all the time. They’ll usually announce major new additions and subject collection on the front page, so check there for announcements.
The front page is also a good place to check for trending topics, special collection events, and subject explorations. Trending topics comes from user searches, so if a lot of people are searching for cat photos (for instance), it’ll show up as a link on the front page for the week.
Scroll down almost to the bottom of the front page and you’ll find the “Free to Use and Reuse” area, where the LOC staff have highlighted a specific subject that has a lot of great photos and ephemera that is in the public domain. This month’s highlight is Birthdays and there’s some really great stuff!
If you’re ever stuck for an idea on what to make a collage on, getting inspiration from the front page collections can be a fun way to break through that wall.
It’s not always easy to search on the Library of Congress website, but if you’re willing to browse through a few pages and try clicking on links, you can find amazing things that will look wonderful in your digital junk journals. Give it a shot!
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