Old Book Illustrations

February 14, 2020

A useful collection of illustrations from “old books” is now available at this link. The service says:

Old Book Illustrations was born of the desire to share illustrations from a modest collection of books, which we set out to scan and publish. With the wealth of resources available online, it became increasingly difficult to resist the temptation to explore other collections and include these images along with our own. Although it would have been possible to considerably broaden the time-frame of our pursuit, we chose to keep our focus on the original period in which we started for reasons pertaining to taste, consistency, and practicality: due to obvious legal restrictions, we had to stay within the limits of the public domain. This explains why there won’t be on this site illustrations first published prior to the 18th century or later than the first quarter of the 20th century.

Like many other collections of images, locating an image can be an interesting exercise. DarkCyber entered a query for the word “factory.” The system respond with two pages of thumbnails. One of the “factory” items as this image:


Old Book Illustrations provides documentation for use of the retrieval system. The Navigation How To includes diagrams and explanations for the user.

DarkCyber points out that locating images by key words or concepts makes clear the limitations of today’s information retrieval technology. This is not a criticism of Old Book Illustrations. Our observation is intended to make sure that the tens of millions of “search experts” recognize the limitations of finding technology and perhaps their own understanding of the issues involved when looking for digital information in services that cannot pay for subject matter experts to index using controlled vocabularies and well crafted classification systems.

How advanced is a more mature system like Google’s, for instance? Go to Google Images and try to locate a specific image in the Time Life images stored on Google. How’s that working out?

Image recognition is at the heart of facial recognition systems. There are worries about facial recognition, but image recognition and meaningful mapping to terms remains a very difficult task. Many problems must be solved before image recognition’s accuracy eliminates most of the manual work still required even with today’s most sophisticated systems.

Kudos for those who try. However, the journey is a long one. Travelers will have manual scanning of images in a database to occupy their idle hours.

Stephen E Arnold, February 13, 2020


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