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Already a poster child for open access in the UK scientific and medical communities, the Wellcome Trust has made another public commitment to free access to information with its announcement that: “Over 100 000 images, including manuscripts, paintings, etchings, early photography and advertisements, are being made freely available through Wellcome Images.”

One of the Wellcome Images treasures: A fly leaf from the personal horoscope of Iskandar Sultan (died 1415), grandson of Tamerlane.

Given the source of the materials, of course, it’s not surprise that most of these images have some connection to medicine or the sciences – but often only the most tenuous connection. As the announcement says, “The unique and diverse holdings of the Wellcome Library, one of the world’s leading libraries on medical history and the human condition, offer a rich body of historical images, ranging from ancient medical manuscripts to etchings by artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Francisco Goya.” And, as Colin Jones, Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of History at Queen Mary University of London, says in a quote on the Wellcome announcement:  ”This announcement makes 2014 a happy new year indeed for anyone interested in what the past looked like. Focused on the history of health and healing, the Wellcome Images archive is in fact quite extraordinarily wide-ranging. It touches and illuminates almost every facet of human existence.”

As per the Wellcome Trust’s information, “All historical images held by Wellcome Images are available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence. This means that they can be used and manipulated freely, for commercial or personal purposes, with an acknowledgement of the original source. High-resolution files can be downloaded directly from wellcomeimages.org.”

Needless to say, the Wellcome Trust’s charitable status – criticized elsewhere as an unfair advantage by certain interest groups more keen to extract value from their intellectual property holdings – is what enables this generosity. But regardless of what this does to other commercial image banks, I think we should be grateful. Our visual culture just got that small but significant bit richer thanks to this.

 
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