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Boston Public Library makes thousands of images available free online

"Black Foot, Standing Bear, Big Eagle," by Frank A. Rinehart (1898). Photographs of the American West Collection.Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library has made more than 8,000 photos, ranging from pictures documenting the construction of the McKim library building in Copley Square to 19th-century daguerreotypes, publicly available on Wikimedia Commons, according to library officials.

The Boston Public Library images are part of a broader effort by the Digital Public Library of America to provide greater access to “historical materials from libraries and museums across the country,” Boston library officials said in a statement Thursday.

Wikimedia Commons offers images free of charge on the Internet, according to its website.

The Digital Public Library of America facilitated the partnership between the Boston Public Library and Wikimedia Commons, library officials said. The Digital Public Library of America began working with Wikimedia Commons in 2019, the Digital Public Library said in a statement on its website.


Boston Public Library’s digital repository services manager, Eben English, said the first batch of photos were chosen because they were easily identifiable as being in the public domain or photos whose copyright was owned by the library.

“In this case the images are all in the public domain so... while we own the original paper copies or the physical copies of the images themselves, we don’t really have any ownership of the content, meaning intellectual or artistic content,” English said in a phone interview. “There’s no reason why we wouldn’t share them.... I think they belong to everybody, so we want to make them accessible to everybody as well.”

The images uploaded to Wikimedia are among the most significant photos in the library’s archives, the statement said, and include some documenting the early history of the Boston Red Sox, 19th-century daguerreotypes, portraits of indigenous peoples taken in the late 1800s in the American West, and Boston photos considered newsworthy.

Boston Red Sox players on automobile tour in Los Angeles, 1911Boston Public Library

Beyond the logistics of public domain and copyright law, English said, the images were chosen for their historical significance.


“We’re looking for things that have historical value. Not necessarily just to Boston but broader academic or historical research,” he said. “A lot of these collections are from either professional or amateur photographers, whose families donated collections to the library, and then some of those are pretty extensive.”

The library wants to expand access to their resources, English said, and saw the Wikimedia Commons partnership as a way to get the photos in front of more people.

“For decades and decades, if not centuries, this stuff just wasn’t accessible for anybody and very few people even knew that it existed,” he said. “We just want to make sure that people are finding them.... That’s part of our mission as the library is to make this stuff available. We could just put this on some digital display in the library [but]... that’s just not good enough.”

The library plans to upload more images to Wikimedia throughout the year, according to the statement.

“We’re actively working on identifying other public domain collections,” English said. “Maps, manuscripts, and additional photograph collections that we’ll be uploading in the year to come.”

Charlie McKenna can be reached at Follow him on twitter @charliemckenna9.

Charlie McKenna can be reached at