World War II planes looping through the sky, Moulin Rouge posters dancing the can-can, daguerreotypes winking at the camera.
These images are decades, hundreds, sometimes thousands of years old — but this month, they exist alongside cat memes and lawnmower vines, as Internet creations brought to life.
These are just a few of the hundreds of GIFs created from archival materials, collected during the Digital Public Library of America’s annual Gif It Up challenge. Throughout October and into November, artists, librarians, GIF makers and more were invited to explore the DPLA archives for openly licensed and public domain material — and then to give those documents, film reels and illustrations new life on the Internet.
“There’s a conception that maps and vintage things are dusty and good for research and not much else,” says DPLA’s Kenny Whitebloom. GIF It Up seeks to bust open this once-dusty trove for greater visibility online. Whitebloom points to the vast archive available — with items ranging from artwork to patent paperwork to wartime news reel — as proof that these cultural heritage materials have a life off the shelves and on the Internet.
Richard Naples, a librarian at the Smithsonian, works in the museum’s digital services department, managing online research and Smithsonian scholarship. He also makes GIFs for the Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr, where he posts animated engravings, moving collages, GIF-d up illustrations and more.
When approaching a GIF task, Naples considers a variety of questions and possibilities: “Is it something that will require a lot of filling in gaps? Is it something that doesn’t have a lot of background? You can cut it out and put in a fake background. Something that can be animated easily. Some movements are easier — like right movements, like joints. Just what kind of story can you tell with it?”
These are the questions GIF makers are facing as they scour the millions of items in DPLA and the National Archives, as well as materials classified by DigitalNZ, a digital library of New Zealand material; Trove, at the National Library of Australia; and Europeana, an online archive of art, documents and more from European galleries and museums.
Of those millions of items, however, a “mere” 80,000 are original moving images — usually news reels, video clips or flipbook-style collections of still motion images. Many GIF-makers splice still images together — from different documents, different creators and different periods of history — to juxtapose old with new, high with low and sweet with surreal.
“Collage and taking different forms is part of the academic experience of being in a library,” Naples said. “You can’t just limit yourself to what it is. For me it’s really interesting to think about these images beyond what they’re intended for, to play around with them.”
A quick scroll through the Gif It Up Tumblr showcases submissions ranging from the straightforward to the psychedelic.
Tumblr user polykrom is a filmmaker and animator living in Belgium. One of his GIF creations animates the dust and the sky in this image of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake aftermath.
“When I found this picture, I wanted to make it alive,” he described in his submission. “And as tragic as possible, like what people in 1906 felt after this disaster.”
Another of polykrom’s creations transforms this Julius Born portrait, sourced from the River Valley Pioneer Museum, into a mind-bending optical illusion.
He even took a simple hallway scene — sourced from the Boston Public Library — and, using zoom and loop, elevated it from the mundane to the Kubrick-esque.
Artists are also welcome to add their own artistic elements to the archived material. Ting Sun of New Zealand mashed together a still of fungi cells separating in a petri dish with a small surprise of his own: two pop-up googly eyes.
Located within the Boston Public Library, DPLA houses hundred of millions of items for perusal — and while GIF It Up invites artists to explore the trove, the challenge also disseminates many of these items to the Tumblrverse and beyond.
Darren Cole runs Today’s Document, the National Archives Tumblr famous for its daily posts that make GIFs of news reels, vintage video and more.
In his work at the National Archive, Cole has shared animated patents for dirigibles and flying machines and looped news reels from multiple presidential administrations, world wars and other landmark events in history.
According to Naples, the most difficult part of GIF-fing these archived materials isn’t the Photoshopping or the artistic restructuring and collaging required to bring many documents to life. Rather, it’s simply combing through the vast library of selections and taking advantage of DPLA’s wealth of search tools.
“Some days it’s like serendipity almost really,” he said.” You used to browse through books and flip through pages and find things, but now you don’t have the same way to do things online — but [DPLA has] these apps like Color Browse. One thing I’m considering is I really like making hot air balloons come to life. And that’s something I can easily find through DPLA.”
Naples gravitates to natural scenes — last year his animated butterflies took a GIF It Up award for best use of natural illustration.
One of his most popular GIFs on the Smithsonian Tumblr created new Photoshop layers to move the wings of each butterfly preserved in this colorful 19th century page from Biologi Centrali-Americana.
Seattle resident Eleanor Lutz was also inspired by butterflies — she collaged three zoological plates from the New York Public Library collection into a single moving image, all wings aflutter.
Lutz pulled another New York Public Library image — of Indiana’s staid South Bend Tribune Building — to layer moving color behind the windows. Her goal: “I wanted to use the huge floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the building to make it look like there was something crazy going on inside.”
But the participants aren’t all Internet artists or Photoshop wizards. Many submissions simply come from lovers of the vintage, the antique and the archived.
“Our job is to maintain the items in their original condition, but we’re also keeping them like that for the public trust, and for the public to do what they like with them,” Cole said. “And although we would never do that to the originals, we love seeing people take things to the next level in that way.”
Naples remembers a GIF submitted last year, early in the GIF It Up challenge.
“It was from someone who saw our Tumblr and thought ‘I want to know how to do this,’” he says. “They were somebody who was volunteering to transcribe materials for the Smithsonian. I thought, ‘That’s such an interesting way to come to this.’”
Salem, Ore., librarian Sarah Cunningham took her inspiration from a simple photo she discovered via DPLA: a small girl on a swing outside an insane asylum at the Oregon State Hospital. Turns out, the photo already belonged to a collection Cunningham knew well: Her very own library, at Oregon State University, owns the original photo.
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