The Smithsonian Institute's new open-access image database is a win for everyone


Images uploaded to the public domain thus far

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The Smithsonian Institution is making its enormous collection of cultural artifacts more accessible than ever. Today the organization announced it’s released 2.8 million high-resolution images for public consumption on an open-access online platform. The platform features material from all of the Smithsonian’s properties, including its 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo.

In the first five days of being uploaded, more than 400,000 digital assets have been viewed on the Smithsonian’s open-access website.

While the Smithsonian’s collections are already free to visit, their digitization makes them exceedingly more accessible to the public. Now anyone with internet access can explore the Smithsonian’s collections — and use them however they choose.

Open for any and all uses — Not only can visitors to the site view and download the Smithsonian’s images: they can also use them for whatever purposes they desire. Every image in the database is listed under a Creative Commons Zero license, which allows anyone to use the pictures as raw material for anything at all. And that’s exactly what the Smithsonian wants users to do.

“Digitizing the knowledge that’s held [at the Smithsonian] to access and reuse transfers a lot of the power to the public,” said Andrea Wallace, an expert in cultural heritage law at the University of Exeter.

Tech issues at launch — Open access to such a massive collection is sure to bring enormous numbers of viewers. It seems the Smithsonian’s new site has done just that; two of the three times I tried to access the site today threw errors at me rather than loading the website.

This is normal for a database of this size, and it’s an issue the Smithsonian will likely smooth out very soon.

More to come — 2.8 million images is already more than any one person could ever hope to consume. But it’s only the beginning: the Smithsonian plans to eventually digitize its entire collection.