Public Domain Images Online

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Public Domain Images at The Library of Congress

Posted by Laurie Frost on May 26, 2009

A fascinating site that offers a rare treasure — images in the public domain — is the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. By no means are all images in the public domain. Fewer are than aren’t. But that still leaves thousands.

This is what you do:  go to the catalog and click through the agreement box. This takes you to the search page. You enter your keyword and, if you are looking for public domain images exclusively, this phrase: “no known restrictions.” Not “public domain”; that will get you nowhere. You want “no known restrictions.”

Let’s try the keyword shaman. Alone, you get 62 results, but not all are usable without seeking permission. Now try shaman + “no known restrictions.”  The yield drops to 24, but these are what you need. Here’s a sample. 













I like this one. I might make him the blog’s mascot.

Once you click on the image, you see a tab at the top of the page called Bibliographic Infomation. Here we find a title for the picture, ”Hamatsa emerging from the woods”; its date (1914), and a summary: “Hamatsa shaman, three-quarter length portrait, seated on ground in front of tree, facing front, possessed by supernatural power after having spent several days in the woods as part of an initiation ritual.” If you look under Subjects, you’ll figure out that the Hamatsa were natives of what became British Columbia. 

 Look also at the line Rights Information. That’s where “no known restrictions” comes from. My thinking is that if the Library of Congress can’t find any restrictions, it is a good bet there are none to be found.

Sometimes a photographer is identified. In this case, it’s Edward S. Curtis, famous for his late 19th to early 20th century photographs of Native Americans. Over 2400 are in the Library of Congress’s collection, but not all have been digitized.  For the Curtis pictures, the explanation of their rights status is clear:  works copyrighted prior to 1923 are in the public domain. Curtis’s works in the collection were copyrighted between 1899 and 1929, but “copyright for the works after 1923 was not renewed, so they are also in the public domain” [see].

The Library of Congress requests credit be given when images from its collections are used. This certainly doesn’t seem too much to ask! Here are its instructions:

When material form the Library’s collections is reproduced in a publication or website or otherwise distributed, the Library requests the courtesy of a credit line.

Ideally, the credit will include

  • reference to Library of Congress, and
  • the specific collection which includes the image, and
  • the image reproduction number (negative, transparency, or digital id number).

Such a credit furthers scholarship by helping researchers locate material and acknowledges the contribution made by the Library of Congress.

Wright Brothers collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-ppmsca-04598.

When space considerations preclude such a caption, shorter versions may be used.


  • Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-13459
  • LOC, LC-ppmsca-09756
  • Library of Congress, C4-2356

Credits for the pictures used in this post, and their titles:

“Driving the devils out of an old man,”  Chosen (Korea) 1919.  LOC,LC-USZ62-96088

“Eskimo medicine man and sick boy,”  between ca 1900 and a. 1930.  LOC, LC-DIG-ppmsc-02441

“Goldi shaman priest and assistant, ” 1895. LOC, LC-W7- 1149

“Hamatsa emerging from the woods”. LOC, LC-USZ62-52196


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