Free to Use and Reuse: Pilot Browser Extension Supports Exploration of Historical Images

This is a guest post by Flynn Shannon, who interned this summer in the Library’s Communications Office through the Junior Fellows Program. He is a student at Kenyon College, where he is pursuing a degree in classical mathematics with a concentration in scientific computing. The post was first published on “The Signal,” a blog covering the Library’s digital initiatives.

Before coming to the Library of Congress as a junior fellow, I had no concept of how large or varied its collections are. Over 167 million items are kept at the Library. Of these, more than 24 million are books. That leaves around 143 million more things. Included in this number are such effects as George Gershwin’s piano, the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets the night of his assassination and more contemporary content, such as web comics.

During my time at the Library, I focused on the over 1 million images available digitally, anywhere in the world. Specifically, I was tasked with designing and developing a proof-of-concept Chrome browser extension to increase awareness of and interaction with digital images with no known copyright restrictions. These images are of particular interest because they can be used freely for any purpose.

Once installed, the extension will change the background of each new tab to a random picture from the Library’s collections that is free to use and reuse. The extension will encourage the use of these images by giving users the option to easily download, email and share the photos on Facebook and Twitter. Users will also be encouraged to learn more about the items by interacting with them on the Library’s website. By clicking on the title of any image, the user will be taken directly to the item’s page on loc.gov. Similar extensions have been created by Europeana, the New York Public Library and MappingVermont.

In developing the extension, my first step was to make a manifest.json file. This process is documented in the .zip file you can access on the free-to-use browser extension experiment page.

I was able to use a field called “chrome_url_overrides” to replace the default new tab with a custom web page built like any other using HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Basic user interface of the Library’s free-to-use browser extension.

Once I had finished the front end, I needed pictures for the background. After reading reviews of similar extensions, I noticed that the most common complaint was that there weren’t enough unique images. Soon after installing, users began to see the same pictures over and over. Because of the size of the Library’s collections of digital images, I hoped that this wouldn’t be a problem.

The folks at LC Labs pointed me to some Jupyter Notebooks that made obtaining data from accessing bulk images on the Library’s website a breeze. I was able to create a method of getting the metadata I needed about each photo from its URL by making only slight modifications to code found in the notebooks.

My first inclination was to pull from all the photos available on the Library’s website. I quickly found some issues with this approach. I began to come across imagery containing offensive, negative stereotypes. Viewed in the proper context, these images provide an important look into a darker time in history. However, they were not appropriate for the purposes of this extension. In addition, not all of the photos online are without copyright restrictions.

As I began coming up with strategies to filter any offensive and copyrighted content, I had a meeting with the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. Staff recommended that I use the photos on the Library’s Flickr channel, which have no known copyright restrictions and are curated.

Using a Python implementation of the Flickr API, I was able to find the URL of each image on the Library’s website. From there, I used the previously created method to write a JSON file that is read by the client-side JavaScript to change the image displayed. The current version of the extension is pulling from a set of more than 16,000 images available on the Library’s Flickr channel (although the Library currently has more than 30,000 images on Flickr and adds more nearly every week).

This is a screenshot from the Library of Congress free-to-use extension.

Free-to-use browser extension displaying an image from the Library with metadata and sharing options.

Try the free-to-use browser extension yourself! You’ll find instructions for download on the Library of Congress Labs Experiments Page – add a comment to this blog post to let me know what you think.

Ensuring the Long-Term Accessibility of Creative Content

This is a guest post by Ted Westervelt, a section head in the Library’s U.S. Arts, Sciences and Humanities Division; Kate Murray, a digital projects coordinator in the Digital Collections Management and Services Division; and Donna Brearcliffe, an electronic resources coordinator in the Collection Development Office. Since the first edition of the Recommended Formats Statement […]

Pic of the Week: Uncovering Hidden Text in Documents

Middle- and high-school students visited the Library’s Preservation Research and Testing Division on May 9 as part of hands-on pilot program focusing on preservation science. Here, alongside Library scientists, the students use the Library’s hyperspectral camera system to discover concealed writing in documents. For the past decade, the Library has relied on increasingly sophisticated hyperspectral […]

That All May Read: Technological Innovations Extend Reach of National Library

From braille to audio books, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) has embraced technological innovations throughout its 85-year history to allow people with visual impairments and other disabilities to read texts all over the world. NLS is a free braille and talking book library service for people with low vision […]

Baseballs: The Heart of the Matter

This is a guest post by Nanette Gibbs, a reference librarian in the Science, Business and Technology Division. Spring training is now under way, and in a few short weeks it will be opening day. In the Science, Technology and Business Division, we have something on nearly everything connected with the game of baseball: balls, […]

Technology at the Library: Long-Hidden Text Is Uncovered in Alexander Hamilton Letter

This is a guest post by Julie Miller, a historian in the Manuscript Division. It is published today to coincide with the anniversary of Alexander Hamilton’s birth: He was born on January 11, 1757. In the mid-19th century John Church Hamilton, a son of Alexander and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, published an edition of his father’s […]

Update on the Twitter Archive at the Library of Congress

In 2010, the Library of Congress announced an exciting and groundbreaking acquisition—a gift from Twitter of the entire archive of public tweet text beginning with the first tweets of 2006 through 2010, and continuing with all public tweet text going forward. The Library took this step for the same reason it collects other materials – […]

Trending: Who Invented Electric Christmas Lights?

Thomas Edison, inventor of the first successful practical light bulb, created the very first strand of electric lights. During Christmas 1880, strands of lights were strung outside his Menlo Park, New Jersey, laboratory, giving railroad passengers traveling by their first look at an electrical light display. But it would take almost 40 years for electric […]

This Day in History: Wright Brothers Take Flight

On a dark and windy morning on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, 114 years ago this Sunday, Orville Wright took flight in a tiny airplane he and his brother Wilbur had painstakingly constructed. The 605-pound craft flew all of 120 feet and remained airborne only 12 seconds. After Orville’s first success, Wilbur set the […]

Trending: An App to Answer Your Questions about the Constitution

This is a guest post by Margaret M. Wood, legal reference librarian in the Law Library. Two years ago, in honor of Constitution Day—celebrated annually on September 17—I wrote a post about the publication “Constitution of the United States: Analysis and Interpretation,” also referred to as the “Constitution Annotated.” Along with the U.S. Code, it […]