From Submarine Blueprints to Intricate Fruit: Digital Collections of Historic Images, Science and Medicine

Library collections often extend far beyond just books and journals, and today’s digital collections offer free access to all types of multimedia.  Online collections from the Library of Congress include photos/prints, manuscripts, video, audio, maps, and even archived websites. One of my favorite types of digital collections are historic images in the science and medicine field.  It can be fascinating to see catalog images for intricate machines from a century ago, infographics from the 1950s about medical careers, or beautifully detailed watercolors of plants.  Here are a few of my favorite places to look for historic science and medicine image collections:

Library of Congress Digital Collections (Science and Technology) – View 19 collections, such as Architecture, Design & Engineering Drawings. This collection “covers about 40,000 drawings (described in more than 3,900 catalog records), spanning 1600 to 1989” and includes a wide range of architectural and engineering designs, such as a submarine design from 1806.

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[Submarine (“Submarine Vessel, Submarine Bombs and Mode of Attack”) for the United States government. Cock cavity and wheel details for “plunging boat”]
National Library of Medicine Digital Collections – I recommend exploring the almost 70,000 images within the Images from the History of Medicine collection.  Browse health-related advertisements, educational material, images of patients and healthcare professionals, medical illustrations, etc. from before 1600 to the present.  For example, check out this infographic from 1957 about the growing field of health service occupations.

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Health service occupations: a growing field of employment for both men and women

Smithsonian Libraries Digital Collections – One of my favorite collections, which I first became familiar with when hunting for online trade literature collections for patent searches, is the Instruments for Science, 1800-1914 collection.  This collection lets you browse through catalogs for scientific instruments and machinery from over a century ago.  Here’s an instrument called a “Moist Chamber” from an 1899 catalog, which was used to “keep a muscle and nerve preparation damp during the experiment” (yikes).

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Moist Chamber (pg 29)

United States Department of Agriculture Special Collections – Some science images are absolute works of art, like the watercolors of fruits and nuts from the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection.  This painting of strawberries from 1914 is one beautiful example.

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Fragaria: Pine Apple

This is only just scratching the surface of online image collections…if you have a lot of time to kill, visit the British Library Flickr page, which offers over a million public domain images scanned from old books.

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