Last updated 12/31/22
Material in the public domain belongs to ALL of us. You can use public domain material for any purpose you want without licensing it or paying royalties to anyone.
Public domain books are a boon to creative, entrepreneurial narrators! I made a video course exclusively for members of my NarratorsRoadmap.com site called Create Your Own Path. The first video discusses how to research the copyright information to determine whether a book is in the public domain. (I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that the course has its own set of resources, including collections of public domain books I’ve created for members to peruse for possible projects!)
When planning your cover art for public domain books, consider these quotes pulled from this Publishers Weekly article about publishing new editions of public domain texts:
“It’s been 95 years since they were published in the United States — so we’re thinking about how we can present them as fresh and relevant.”
“The design process for reimagining classic covers also requires a special sort of attention…You just need a cover that’s going to jump out from all the other covers.”
“I always feel it’s important to create covers for classic authors that they would appreciate. I think it’s really important to be respectful of the text.”
Many people who create audiobooks from public domain texts also look to use public domain artwork for their audiobook covers. I’ve done that with a number of books, including:
I found the image for JAILED FOR FREEDOM on the Library of Congress site. The sun on THE DYNAMIC LAWS OF PROSPERITY came from NASA.
You may even need to layer images to achieve the look you want. In the case of SO BIG, my cover designer found a perfect antique, public domain painting of the woman standing in the cabbage field. Meanwhile, I found a modern photograph of a farm boy squatting in a field on a commercial site of stock images. I bought the picture for around $15 and then used Photoshop to place him in the image of the painting with Photoshop. I used a number of filters and effects to give him the same look as the original painting. Since the painting was public domain, I had complete freedom to alter it in this way for my cover.
Since I’ve seen a number of posts from narrators looking for sources of public domain illustrations, I thought I’d curate a handy list for all of us! Note that I’m not including the plethora of sites with modern stock images or that may charge fees for usage.
While a piece of art might be in the public domain, a contemporary photographer may hold a copyright on their picture of the art. Be sure to do due diligence to ensure that an image you want to use is in the public domain or may be used without restriction.
You can specify on your search that you’re looking for “No known copyright restrictions”, “U.S. Government works”, or other license choices.
- Note the Internet Archive Book Images stream has over 5 million images, with a majority taken from vintage books now in the PD.
- Some of their images may still be copyrighted, so double-check anything with a publication date between 1928-1963. Anything published in 1964 and later is still copyrighted.
- Narrator Angie Hickman shared this search tip: You can enter the search “bookyearXXXX” where XXXX is the 4-digit year and see only images published that year.
- This biodiversity subset of images has some wonderful illustrations from nature.
The advanced search allows you to choose usage rights among all, Creative Commons, and commercial.
You’ll find multiple vintage illustrations of the same theme bundled on the same image.
This site has a number of categories of images, including artists and animals.
Wikimedia offers over 75 million pictures that you can download and use. Its topic searches are useful for zeroing in on useful images.
Work created by federal government employees in their official duties and/or issued by government offices generally is not copyrighted and is in the public domain. This page offers a fuller explanation about copyright exceptions on government works.
A number of government sites contain searchable directories of images, including:
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pomological Watercolor Collection
This site describes and links to image libraries for over a dozen agencies.
Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature
The Smithsonian called this site a treasure trove of digitized, Victorian-era children’s books.
Biodiversity Heritage Library
If you’re looking for flora and fauna, you’ll want to search the images here.
The British Library posts on Flickr, with pictures categorized into albums. Of special interest are the 2 collections:
- Topographical Collection of King George III 268 albums — lots of great maps and more
- Gothic Novel Jam 2018 4 albums of castles, ghosts and ghoulish scenes, illustrated letters and typography, and myths and creatures
Library of Congress
This page shows a sample of the collections owned by the Library of Congress. However, they have so much more content that’s not linked here. I’ve found it helpful to do a Google site search on the main LoC.gov for the type of image I want, for example:
site:loc.gov 19th amendment suffragists then click Images when the search results appear
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Over 400,000 high-res images are available for open access download in this searchable database.
New York Public Library
You can do a general search or get really specific with a topic and/or genre search.
Cleveland Museum of Art
The museum offers “Open Access with Creative Commons: images, data and software CMA believes to be in the public domain, or that which CMA waives any copyright it might have .”
Digital Comic Book Museum
The site states: “All files here have been researched by our staff and users to make sure they are copyright free and in the public domain.” An Excel list of comics is linked in the forum FAQs.
J. Paul Getty Museum
The Getty has made images to which it owns the copyright along with public domain images available for download and free usage.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Over 400,000 of the Met’s public domain images are available through its Open Access policy. This page has links to 20 thematic sets of images.
Presently, this site will search the following holdings:
- Art Institute of Chicago
- Cleveland Museum of Art
- Harvard Art Museum
- Minneapolis Institute of Art
- New York Public Library Digital Collection
Smithsonian Open Access
You can choose from more than 3 million images “from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo.”
Old Book Illustrations
While searching for an illustration for a recent blog article, I found this site that specializes in Victorian and French Romantic illustrations.
Public Domain Review
Highlighting wonderful works in the public domain is the mission of this site. You can browse images by epoch, style, or theme. You may want to subscribe to their newsletter while you’re there.
Do you have a favorite site for public domain images? Please share it in the comments!
Another wonderful list of sources Karen. Thanks. I’m loving that you combined images for So Big. Never would have guessed that. 🙂
Karen Commins says
Thanks, Blair! One of the major benefits of public domain material is our free ability to alter it to create something new!
This is a fantastic list. I’ve been going through search results for days trying to compile such a list and you have all the big ones I’ve found. And you put me onto the fantastic biodiversity collection! Thanks.
A couple smaller ones I’ve found that I don’t see listed here:
National Gallery of Art
I’ll also add that Project Gutenberg has many book illustrations included but their search is not designed for it.
Karen Commins says
Hi George! Thanks so much for the additional links and info!