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Image hunting: Tips for sourcing historical images

At Talk Science to Me, we spend a lot of time sourcing images, both for our own use on our blog and website, and for our clients. The right image can be invaluable to a document, either by helping to break up long blocks of text or by giving the reader extra information about what they’re reading.

One of our recent projects gave us the opportunity to really put our image sourcing expertise to work. Talk Science was contracted by Public Architecture + Communication to find images for the new interpretive panels they are designing as part of the City of Vancouver’s Hastings Park project. We got to do some pretty neat research, looking for images of everything from violet-green sparrows to a 1955 Grey Cup ticket to Elvis performing at Empire Stadium.

The historical nature of the project was fun, but it also made image sourcing tricky: it can be really difficult to find specific historical images that are high-res and that you can get permission for. It can be very difficult, and sometimes even impossible, to find the copyright information and owner for a random picture you find on the Internet. It’s incredibly frustrating to find the perfect image and not be able to use it, so, here are some lessons we learned about the unique difficulty of sourcing historical images.

Start old school

If you’re a digital native (or near-native, like me), your first impulse will probably be to start your search on Google. Don’t. Go directly to an archives website instead (in our case, the City of Vancouver Archives). Archives have clear information on who holds the copyright and how you need to go about getting permissions. And as Library and Archives Canada points out, not everything is online, so it might even be worth it to visit an archives in person. If you can’t physically get to an archives, call or email them to ask for help.

Start early
Finding an image can be quick, but getting permission often is not. If you need to contact the copyright holder for permission to use the image, you’ll be emailing or calling all sorts of busy people: managers of bands, museum curators, photographers. And remember that getting in touch with the right person doesn’t mean you’ll get permission; they have the right to say no, and then you’re back to hunting images again. It’s usually (but not always) easier to contact the photographer directly, if they are the copyright holder, but of course for historical images this won’t always be possible.

Get a bit creative: is there something that represents a historical event that you can take your own picture of instead of looking for a photo of the actual event? Canadian copyright law states that it is not a copyright infringement to take a photo of “(i) an architectural work, provided the copy is not in the nature of an architectural drawing or plan, or (ii) a sculpture or work of artistic craftsmanship or a cast or model of a sculpture or work of artistic craftsmanship, that is permanently situated in a public place or building.” So if you have a good camera and some photography skills, snap your own image. Interspersing modern colour images with black-and-white photos can make things a bit more interesting.

Let someone else do the work
Using stock image sites like Getty Images, Corbis and Shutterstock can save you a lot of time, because someone has already done the work for you. They provide copyright information and help you decide what kind of licence you need. And in our experience, they have great customer service. We called a couple of times and spoke with someone who walked us through the process and helped us make sure we got the right licence. Most of these sites also let you download a low-res thumbnail of images, which is great if you need to send the images to a client for review.

Images on stock photo sites can be expensive, and this often scares people away from using them. Of course you need to stay within your budget, but think about the value of your time—or the time of a contractor if you’ve hired one. Paying for an image often ends up being more cost-effective and efficient, especially if a particular image is taking a long time to track down.

Stay organized
When sourcing images, it’s incredibly important to have a tracking system. You don’t want to accidentally swap copyright information between two images or pay twice for the same image rights. For this project, our client had to review the images before we bought them, so we assigned each image a unique code number and tracked our progress in a spreadsheet. We had two folders for images: one for sample thumbnails and one for final high-res images. Each image was labeled with its code and the image name. Any updates on the status of permissions was put in the spreadsheet. This system also helps with design and content creation, since the writer can reference the image that are supposed to accompany the text, and the designer can use the codes to communicate about the various images.

Historical images can be tricky to source, but if you’re prepared to dive into archives and be a little bit creative, the hunt can be incredibly fun. The amount you learn by sifting through dozens of images that you won’t use makes all the time spent worth it, especially when you finally strike gold and find that perfect picture.

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