The internet is a complex place. On one hand, you have trolls, dark patterns, and deception. On the other, you have wonderfully altruistic platforms of knowledge open to the public to teach and inspire. Enter, The Public Domain Review.
As a quick refresher, the Standford University Library explains, “the term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.”
The Public Domain Review is a curio cabinet of wondrously strange artifacts of knowledge, or as they put it, an exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas. Founded in 2011, it’s been lauded by the mainstream press for its ingenious discoveries and insights. The site has been lauded by the Guardian as “ … A model of digital curation” and The Paris Review brags that it is “One of our favourite journals.”
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Green, the editor-in-chief of The Public Domain review, to discuss their work and various ways they have organized visual information and knowledge.
Jason Forrest: Thanks for joining us, why don’t you introduce yourself.
Adam Green: Thanks for having me! I’m Adam Green, based in London, and I started The Public Domain Review nine years ago now. It started off quite slowly as a little blog. I used to make collages and used a lot of these online archives to source images and texts — like Internet Archive, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons. I began gathering some of my favorite images I’d find on my internet travels and I was fortunate enough to have a friend working for the Open Knowledge Foundation. They were putting in a funding bid to a U. S. organization (The Shuttleworth Foundation), to do something around promoting the value of the public domain. And we had the idea to develop the blog into a fully-fledged website, with essays, and so The Public Domain Review was born. Then, well, it has gradually just taken over my life.
JF: I know the feeling. So what would you say is the mission of The Public Domain Review?
AG: I guess there are a few different strands to the mission. One of the main things is to celebrate the richness of the public domain, the cultural public domain. In particular, the institutions which are allowing access to those public domain artworks and books without restriction, so that public domain works stay in the public domain when they go online. So in one sense, it’s a celebration of the work of those good institutions, and a portal through which to explore them, but then in another way , its simply just a fun place to showcase, and explore, the unusual treasures that history has to offer. I guess to take a little sideways look at the history of art, literature, and ideas. So, you know, we won’t necessarily feature very well-known stuff, but more kind of overlooked histories or if we do focus on notable people or works it’ll be from more of an unusual angle. And, of course, it’s also a platform for writers to get the word out about the really fascinating stuff they’re researching and writing about.
JF: Do you think writers come to you with things they just stumbled across on their own or do you think that they are actually out there combing through archives looking for as you said, these sideways looks into history?
AG: I say that it’s the former. Often academics coming to us with “offshoots” of content which can’t find a place within their Ph.D. or book. Or sometimes authors who create adaptations from their book chapters and things like that. But we don’t get many people saying “hey, look at this incredible stuff” just out of the blue, separate from a line of research they are already involved in.
JF: The Public Domain Review has so much information about such wildly different sources, how have you tried to present this to your readers?
AG: Yes it is a motley mix of content for sure! We’re actually in the process of improving the way we present this variety. We’ve recently got a new website built which we hope has improved things, how people can sift through the ever-growing mass of stuff. One important thing is to try and be as clear as possible about where content comes from by always linking back to the source and if we found it via someone else. Then we include indications about the usage of the possible rights, so we’ve got metadata that accompanies all the collections pieces. Then we try and tag sensibly to make things discoverable according to category.
With this new website, it’s exciting, currently working on developing new ways of displaying the data according to things like timelines, maps, and indexes to help create new ways of linking material.
JF: I didn’t realize that you were trying to find ways of visualizing your archive.
AG: Yeah, that’s something quite new. I mean beyond the “tag cloud”. We want to find ways of being a bit more clever with ways of displaying the data. The timeline, in particular, is something I think could be really interesting in terms of throwing up connections and unexpected synchronicities.
JF: Why would you be looking for synchronicities and overlaps?
AG: There’s always something nice about relating potentially quite different material together. It’s not just like: “look at this thing,” — in a vacuum — but rather about seeing it in context, or perhaps, even better, illuminating unexpected contexts, creating a way of displaying networks and relationships from which new angles of approach can emerge.
JF: Right, it’s a way of recontextualizing information or history which is something that I’ve personally very preoccupied with as well. So the site obviously features a ton of photographs, illustrations, diagrams, and charts. Do you find that certain types of illustrations or visualizations resonate more or less with your audience?
AG: It’s hard to say. There’s such a broad spectrum of interest from the readers. But I guess diagrams from the 19th century always seem to do well, there’s such wonderful stuff — just when the publishing industry was starting to bloom — a total revolution in people digesting info to get down onto paper.
JF: Obviously with the innovations in publishing and printing in the 18th and 19th century it sets the stage for publishing to really scale, right? But then when you hit the 20th century, it’s like truly the floodgates are really open. I mean, it’s impossible to parse through it all, but post-1900, you’re just you’re gonna find a lot of content about pretty much any given subject in print form. I think it’s just really fascinating to see the scale of human documentation continue to ramp up.
JF: So with all that you’ve invariably learned in publishing all this content. What does information design mean to you now?
AG: I guess I see it through a quite particular lens, a historical lens. But I’m not sure I see it in relation to any overarching meaning as such — more just specific examples of how people over time have organised and represented various kinds of data.. The uniqueness of all these different approaches.
JF: You’ve been doing it for nine years, do you find that you’re able to view a lot of the content that people bring to you with additional insight because you’ve been looking at these particular moments in history and different disciplines for so long?
AG: For sure. You know, there’s a lot of synergy going on. A lot of the material tends to feedback into each other when I’m looking for a picture to illustrate some particular point or paragraph in an essay.
JF: Do you have any particular favorites that are focusing on data visualization or information design that you’ve covered?
AG: Our latest essay on Emma Willard, written by Susan Schultern, is great. Willard is such a fascinating figure and her “maps of time” just incredible — the imagination to represent the flow of time in such a way, I guess fairly familiar to us now, but totally new at the time. On the visualization of time/history angle, there’s also the whole steps of life phenomena which is really interesting — I suppose a kind of proto-meme which would see a stage of a person’s life get mapped out in a series of steps going up to the height of middle-aged and then slowly declining to death.
The W.E.B. Du Bois visualizations of African-American life, which I know you’ve featured before, are amazing, and that was actually one of our most popular posts we’ve ever had. And then, of course, there’s a whole bunch of stuff relating to representing the cosmos.
Cellarius’s celestial atlas is great, and there’s also a really brilliant set of cosmographic diagrams and schemas found in this late 12th-century manuscript from England, including a lovely “graph” plotting the course of the planets.
I’m also a big fan of Robert Fludd, he has some beautiful visualizations of his occult ideas — and I don’t know if this would count — he also made these really good diagrams relating to memory tricks, where he’s taken objects in everyday life that look like numbers or letters, to be used in a “memory palace.”