You wouldn’t think centuries-old books would be the perfect inspiration for creating stunning, charming GIFs. You’d be wrong.
The Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr is chock-full of magical GIFs, with animation augmenting stale and static old book pages. “To me, it really recaptures some of that creativity of discovery when you’re a child and you’re looking through things for the first time, and seeing them and your imagination runs wild,” said Richard Naples, the Smithsonian’s resident GIF-maker. “I enjoy making that clear. A lot of people would look past these materials as just old books, but they’re full of all these fascinating discoveries.”
It began in April 2012 when Naples was looking through the institution’s digital library and came across a praxinoscope, a late 19th Century French animation invention. He thought: Why not take the same idea and apply it to GIFs?
Naples started with a humble GIF of a monkey hopping over a fence. Then, he taught himself how to create more complex animations and made one of Thelca (genus) butterflies, as depicted in Biologia Centrali-Americana, a book published in the late 1800s. The image — which appears at the top of this post — took off, so to speak.
Learning how to make GIFs wasn’t so hard for Naples. “I think the real creative part is finding the content and thinking about how to bring it to life,” he said. The GIF below comes from Galileo’s “Sidereus nuncius” (also called “Starry Messenger”), published in 1610. The book documents the polymath’s first discoveries when using his newly invented telescope.
Below are some fireworks from “Pratique de la guerre,” published in 1681. This page is from a section called “Feux de Joye.”
Naples, whose job title is “technical information specialist,” works in the digital services department, where he manages research online and a bibliography of Smithsonian scholarship. But he and a handful of others also focus on social media — which, he said, “is really a great way for us as a library … [that’s] mostly behind the scenes, to be out there.”
Here’s another image that comes from “Scrapbook of early aeronautica,” collected by William Upcott.
Hit the high seas as Milton J. Burns’s “A Breezy Afternoon” comes alive. The next page is from an illustrated catalog entitled “Black and white exhibition of the Salmagundi Sketch Club,” published in 1881. The Salmagundi Club, an art organization founded in 1871, is still active today in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
Naples clearly had fun with this next GIF. He took a fan from a 1894 book called “The woman’s book, dealing practically with the modern conditions of home-life, self-support, education, opportunities, and every-day problems.” Naples inserted it into a portrait of German astronomer Johannes Kepler, as published in 1859’s “The moon hoax; or, A discovery that the moon has a vast population of human beings.” Kepler is called “John Kepler” in the volume written by Richard Adams Locke.
As books move increasingly toward digitization, there can be a diminishing sense of getting “lost in the stacks and the serendipity” of coming across something special, Naples said. “I try to spend some time to browse our collections and see if anything pops out.”
This is from Maria Sibylla Merian’s “Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung,” published in 1730.
And if we must be biased, let it be here: These are our favorites from the Smithsonian’s GIF collection.
The first comes from “Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the year 1856, Agriculture.” The second, as written on the Tumblr, “is probably an illustration of Glaucomys volans, the Southern Flying Squirrel.”
“Despite being seldom seen due to their nocturnal habits, flying squirrels are indeed common,” the caption reads. “Caped flying squirrels, however, are pretty uncommon.” Enjoy.