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Free Images from Libraries, Museums, and Archives: Home


This guide identifies sources of free images from libraries, museums, archives, and historical societies. Scholarly, non-profit organizations such as the National Audubon Society may also be referenced.. Commercial image sources are not included.


Attribution and citation are similar, but not identical. A quick definition:

Attribution is giving credit to the creator of an image or other material in whatever manner that creator has specified. It's their stuff, and you're using it for free, so it's only fair to give credit as requested. The website or webpage where you obtained the material will almost always tell you the wording they'd like you to use.

Citation is an integral part of scholarship, in which you name all the sources used in your research as a matter of intellectual honesty. This applies to text (books, articles, encyclopedia entries) and non-text material like images, sound files, statistical tables, and so on. There are several standardized formats for citations, and your professor will tell you which one they want you to use. Online guides to common citation styles.

More on attribution vs. citation from open.michigan.


"The public domain" means works that are no longer protected by copyright, or where the creator of the work has explicitly waived their right to copyright protection.

Copyright is not an issue for class assignments and term papers, IF your professor is the only person who will see what you turn in. You could photocopy an image of a comic book character to illustrate your analysis of the symbolism of their crime-fighting costume, for example. (You would still have to cite where you obtained the image.)

BUT if your paper or content is put on a public website (as many class projects are) you must observe copyright restrictions. Works in the public domain are safe to use because they are no longer protected by copyright, or never were.

  • The most well-known category of public domain work is books whose creation or publication was in the United States before 1924.
  • More recent works can be placed in the public domain by their creator with a Creative Commons license. See below for more information.
  • What if you want to use material never before published, or published in another country, or in a nonprint format such as a sound recording or architectural drawing? Cornell University's Copyright Information Office offers a detailed list.


A Creative Commons license is a mechanism by which the creator of a resource (text, image, video, etc.) can make it available to others.

The creator can choose whether the license allows the work to be modified or only used in the exact form it is downloaded, and whether the work can be used by anyone or only for noncommercial purposes.

Learn all about Creative Commons licenses at

Resource Guide Editor

Ruth Ann Jones

Instruction/Outreach Librarian

Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections

Michigan State University Libraries