It’s nice to start the new year by looking forward, but it can be just as instructive to look back; and there are some great resources that make looking back easier and more fruitful than ever.
Project Gutenberg is a great idea. Not just in the sense of “great” as “terrific”, but in the sense of “great” as “milestone” or “extraordinary”.
If you’re not familiar with it, Project Gutenberg is an attempt to digitize and archive as many public domain cultural works as possible (as opposed to archiving technical information). Started in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, and maintained and contributed to by thousands of volunteers, the archive already contains the full text of more then 20,000 books that are old enough to have moved into the public domain.
These are archived as free eBooks in several formats, Plucker a format that can be read on a Palm device or smartphone with the open source Plucker Viewer; HTML, which can be read online or downloaded as a Zip file; and plain text in ascii and utf-8 encodings. There are also audio books, sheet music and pictures.
Even though the length of time it takes for a book to become public domain was extended by the Copyright Term Extension Act, as the result of intensive lobbying by Disney and other corporate entertainment barons (hence its nickname as The Mickey Mouse Protection Act because the change happened as MM was about to slip into public domain), there are still a number of books in the archive printed after color printing became economical enough to include good reproductions of illustrations and other paintings, in addition to the older pen and ink illustrations.
Unfortunately, the weak link in the Project Gutenberg chain seems to be that the scanning and preparation of many illustrated books for the archive has apparently been done by individuals with no knowledge of graphic arts basics, and/or by brain damaged rhesus monkeys, resulting in the frustrating presence of a number archived illustrated books in which the illustrations are dark, blurry, over-compressed smears, or ratty, scratchy GIF files. (The latter is sadly the state of their archive of the wonderful John Tenniel illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. For better resources, see my post on Sir John Tenniel).
Thankfully, this is not always the fate of illustrated books in the collection, possibly because some graphics knowledgeable people have volunteered to help. A case in point is Masters of Water-Colour Painting by H.N. Cundall (HTML version here), a book published in the 1920’s with color plates of great watercolors, like the plate above, “Palazzo Contarini Fasan on the Grand Canal, Venice” by Samuel Prout.
There are some other gems in the collection but you have to look for them, a process that’s not always as easy as is should be. The project has a decent search feature, if you know what you’re looking for, but is weak on browsing. Repeated searching can bare fruit, the terms “painting” and “painters” will return different results. Try the Advanced Search or Catalog Overview page, from which you can use the Anacleo, Yahoo and Google search features.
Also, once you find a title you like, look in the “Bibliographic Record” section toward the top of that entry’s main page for the “LoC Class” link, in the case of the above title, the class is “ND: Fine Arts; Painting“, and returns some good results.
Digging will be rewarded.
Obviously, a project like this depends on contributions of money and time (they are always asking for help in the form of distributed proofreaders); and, though I can’t speak for the program, it looks to me like it might benefit in particular from they help of individuals with some knowledge of digital media and graphic arts.
[Masters of Water-Colour Painting link via Acuarela]