Teaching with Archives

A Fashionable Melange of English Words, Kamekichi Tsunajima, 1887 (source).

At the AIGA Design Educators Community conference this June, I’m facilitating a workshop on using digital humanities resources to teach global design history. It can be tricky to find English-language, open-access sources that offer both high-quality reproductions and useful context for images that aren’t in your typical survey textbook. Though it’s not usually what I post about here, I’d like to share a few of the resources I use in both the studio and the design history classroom. Many sources mentioned here have decent-to-excellent coverage of the usual kinds of images from western Europe and North America that get covered in design history surveys; I make note of which additional global locations I’ve had good luck with at each source, if the archive’s name doesn’t make this information evident.

The Public Domain Review is a not-for-profit Open Knowledge project that collects and reviews (among other things) images that are in the public domain. In addition to showing images and providing introductory information about their production and meaning, the site links to the organizations and archives that house the originals and/or host the digital copies. I’ve found some unusual Chinese and Japanese sources here, and this is an excellent site for sourcing images to use in studio design projects that explore historical subject matter, since everything is in the public domain.

Monoskop is a collaborative wiki that focuses on arts and humanities. Their digital collection of Avant Garde magazines is especially fabulous, and it includes full runs of early Modernist publications from Japan, eastern Europe, and Central/South America, as well as all of the familiar publications from France, Germany, Russia, the Netherlands, and Italy. Some scans are housed on-site, like the amazing Mavo from Japan; other publications are viewed via links to repositories like the Asia Art Archive or Biblioteca Brasiliana.

The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection has thousands of very high-resolution, mostly public-domain geographical images. In addition to maps, this vast collection includes a surprising number of images graphic designers would call “infographics,” mostly from atlases. The collection is highly searchable (by maker, date, location, printing method) and the metadata is generally excellent. Though the collection is heavy on western European and North American cartographers, there’s growing representation for other geographical regions, particularly in the twentieth century.

The Qatar Digital Library is a collaboration between the British Library and the Qatar National Library, and it includes not only images but also audio, video, and featured articles. While most of the digital images can also been seen on the BL site, the QDL site makes it much easier to focus a search on the Persian Gulf region. The object descriptions are sometimes longer and more useful than those you’d get through a typical BL catalog search; they’re also often written by librarians and curators at the QNL. There’s good representation for illuminated manuscripts and maps, and some coverage for commercial illustration, newspapers, and printed books.

The Endangered Archives project at the British Library provides online access to physically endangered archival material from around the world. The interface sorts the materials into geographic regions: Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Item descriptions for the contents within individual projects are concise and easy to locate; there aren’t image thumbnails, which makes it time-consuming to browse visually. It’s worth the effort, though. The collection is incredibly diverse, ranging from seventeenth century Islamic manuscripts made in Ethiopia to magazines from Mongolia in the 1990s.

50 Watts is an excellent blog about book design and illustration. It’s browsable by location, date, and subject. Subjects range from textbook covers in 1920s Japan to mid-century Guatemalan illustration for children and information about each source is (usually) very specific and complete.

Japan’s National Diet Library digital collection includes books, periodicals, rare books and manuscripts, and various multi-media items (films, sound recordings). It’s searchable in English, though sometimes it can be difficult to find information beyond the basics of title/maker/date.

By dorigriffin

Graphic designer, design historian, bibliophile, typophile, classical music groupie.