These whimsical GIFs from Smithsonian Libraries bring old books to life

13 Species of Thecla (genus) butterflies from Insecta. Lepidoptera-Rhopalocera of Biologia Centrali-Americana, an encyclopedia of natural history of Central America. A landmark and still often-cited work, Smithsonian Libraries has digitized 58 volumes that you can explore at electronic Biologia Centrali-Americana.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

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.

Walking the elephant—you’re doing it wrong. from a scrapbook of early aeronautica, collected by William Upcott, English librarian and antiquary circa 1837-1840.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

His favorite GIF is of an elephant balloon, inspired by a static page in “Scrapbook of early aeronautica,” published in 1783.

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.

We hope tonight* you will stay off tumblr long enough to catch the entirely new Camelopardalids meteor shower, which promises be a good one. Comet dust from 209P/LINEAR, sloughed off 200 years ago in its orbit around the sun is due to enter our atmosphere and provide us a remarkable show. That is provided you find somewhere with clear skies away from sources of light. Sidereus Nuncius, sometimes called Starry Messenger, is a short work by Galileo Galilei in 1610—or almost 200 years before 209P/LINEAR laid the groundwork for tonight’s show. Above is the verso of Galileo’s drawings of the Pleiades star cluster, which makes an exceptional background for our shooting stars. The edition is available for view online in our Heralds of Science collection, a set of books donated to the Smithsonian Libraries by noted book collector and founder of the Burndy Library, Bern Dibner. Our Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology is named in his honor. Make Galileo proud. (*Just fyi: this was originally posted on May 23, 2014—the “tonight” we were referring to. Hoping this slight edit will help with any confusion and unnecessary time away from tumblr. The International Meteor Organization has a calendar of meteor showers, if you’re interested.)
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

Below are some fireworks from “Pratique de la guerre,” published in 1681. This page is from a section called “Feux de Joye.”

Ye Olde Fireworks! From the section charmingly called “Feux de Joye,” this is a somewhat modified scan of 17th century fireworks from Practique de la guerre. Happy Fourth of July!
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

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.

Looks like the “walking philosopher” upgraded. Original image from Upcott’s Scrapbook of early aeronautica.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

Watch these German kids fly a (dare we say creepy?) kite, created from a static page in the 1900 collection of German children’s poetry, “Hans Lustig : ein heiteres Bilderbuch.”

This Saturday is the Blossom Kite Festival on the National Mall, so we felt this might be apropos. From Hans Lustig : ein heiteres Bilderbuch in our Galaxy of Images, or read the full text if you enjoy children’s poetry in German.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

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.

Milton J. Burns, A Breezy Afternoon in Black and White exhibition of the Salmagundi Sketch Club. The Salmagundi Club is still an active part of the New York art world.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

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.

Kepler and his biggest fan. Portrait of Kepler from The Moon Hoax; or, a discovery that the moon has a vast population of human beings. By Richard Adams Locke. 1859 (fan actually from this book - artistic license )
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

Books in the collection date back to the 1200s, and Naples got the original images from Smithsonian Libraries Books Online and Galaxy of Images.

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.

We close pollinator week with this animated tribute to the bees, bugs, birds, bats, and others who make life a little sweeter. Original from Maria Sibylla Merian’s Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung , 1730
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)

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.

...
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com)
Despite being seldom seen due to their nocturnal habits, flying squirrels are indeed common. Caped flying squirrels, however, are pretty uncommon. From the Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the year 1856, Agriculture. This is probably an illustration of Glaucomys volans, the Southern Flying Squirrel. Learn more on the Encyclopedia of Life.
(Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries/smithsonianlibraries.tumblr.com).
Elahe Izadi is a general assignment national reporter for The Washington Post.
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