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The Collation

British Book Illustrations

Good news, picture-seekers! If you’ve ever tried to search Luna for a picture of something specific, you’ve probably noticed that relatively few digital images match one-to-one with their source descriptions.

For example, although a keyword search for “dog” will bring up depictions of dogs in single items from the art collection (like this one who seems to making good an escape, and this one who has stopped to smell the flowers), it will also bring up all 140 images of a manuscript that’s described as including recipes “for the bite of a mad dog.”

Sadly, not a dog. (Folger MS W.b.283, p.54)

It will not, however, bring up any of the seven pages depicting dogs in Edward Topsell’s Historie of foure-footed beastes: Topsell’s book has a lengthy catalog record, but the word “dog” does not appear anywhere in it. Thus, a search for that word will not bring up these images.

All this has changed thanks to the Folger’s British Book Illustrations project.

British Book Illustrations (BBI) is a project of the Folger Shakespeare Library, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), to digitize and index woodcut and engraved illustrations in our seventeenth-century British and English-language books. We began by systematically digitizing all of the nearly 6,700 illustrations from the years 1604-1640, continuing the work done by Luborsky and Ingram in their Guide to English Illustrated Books, 1536-1603. We subsequently digitized around 3,300 illustrations from the years 1641-1700 from selected books that are renowned for their illustrations.

Perhaps most exciting aspect of this project is that these images are also indexed: now, an image of a dog will be findable when searching for that word, regardless of whether or not it’s contained in the metadata for the book. For this feature, we used Iconclass, the same vocabulary used by libraries, museums, and art galleries all over the world to describe visual material. Iconclass is the internationally-accepted standard for the description and retrieval of subjects represented in images, able to account for both the simple—this is a dog—and the complex—this is a dog representing the concept of insatiable-ness.

Insatiable puppy. (STC 4863.5, p.230)

Iconclass is broken up into ten major subject areas: Abstract, Non-representational Art; Religion and Magic; Nature; Human Being, Man in General; Society, Civilization, Culture; Abstract Ideas and Concepts; History; Bible; Literature; and Classical Mythology and Ancient History.

These ten major subject areas are further broken down into a series of increasingly specific levels of keywords. The Iconclass browser allows the user to travel up and down the levels of the hierarchy, as well as to search for these more specific keywords within it. Each Iconclass heading is preceded by an alphanumeric identifier, and each character within this identifier refers to a different level of the Iconclass hierarchy—bread, for instance, has the identifier 41C621, which is broken down in English as follows:

4 Society, civilization, culture
41 material aspects of daily life
41C nutrition, nourishment
41C6 foodstuffs; still life of foodstuffs
41C62 bread, cake, pastry, etc.
41C621 bread, loaf

The same images can be reached from three different interfaces, each with its own strengths:

British Book Illustrations (BBI) website

You can use the basic Iconclass browser on the BBI website to search British Book Illustrations in the Folger collection for free, anywhere in the world. The major subject areas are listed within the browser; click on any of them to narrow down the search results, and to see a narrower set of categories.

“3 Human being, man in general,” for instance, is further broken down into categories including “31 man in a general biological sense,” “33 relations between individual persons,” and “34 man and animal”; these categories are themselves further subdivided, and so on. The search bar in the top right can be used to find relevant subject headings. A keyword search for “dogs,” for example, returns headings including “34A3 training of dogs,” within the broader category “34 man and animal,” and “43C1147 hunting dogs,” within the broader category “43C11 hunting, chase.”

Once you’ve browsed for what you want, select any of the thumbnails to open a zoomable full-screen version of the image (hint: right-click and select “Open in new tab” so that your “browse” window remains open).

Hunting dogs (STC 24329 Copy 1, p. 109)

LUNA: Folger British Book Illustrations

The Iconclass headings have been copied into a sub-collection Luna in order to facilitate keyword searching. To search the headings, select the British Book Illustrations collection from the Luna home page. If you want to be even more precise in your search, you can limit your keyword search to the Iconclass field by preceding your search term with “iconclass_headings=”. So you might search iconclass_headings=dog. You can accomplish the same thing by selecting the “Iconclass Headings” field on the “Advanced Search” drop-down.

If you are on-site at the Folger, or otherwise have access to the subscription database, you can use the full Iconclass browser at Arkyves to search the Folger’s images from BBI, including easily browsing all illustrations from a particular book. And if you remove the “Folger Shakespeare Library” filter, you can search over 800,000 additional images from a number of institutions all over the world.

mmm, bread. (STC 882, D1r)


The “hot” link Luna in the first line of the page yields an error message. The other links to Luna in the body of the text images do work.

Ronald K. Smeltzer — April 19, 2019


Whoops! Apologies, it should be fixed now. Thanks for the catch.

Abbie Weinberg — April 19, 2019


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