How To Search the Collections of Famous Libraries & Museums

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bmcatWhen was the last time you visited the library?  Or a museum?   When was the last time you read a reference book from cover to cover or took the time to travel to an exhibition?    I bet it was quite some time ago since most of these things are now readily available online, digitised and searchable.

As more and more libraries and museums take their collections online, the less people need to actually visit those places.  This is both good and bad.   Good because more and more people have access to collections they wouldn’t normally be able to see.   But bad because, as I said, it removes the need to actually go there in person if you can, and see the items for yourself.   Falling attendance means falling revenue which means these places will ultimately be forced to close.  So it’s a bit of a catch-22 digitising these amazing collections.

Here are some places which have taken either all or most of their collections and papers online for all to see – and it’s all completely free to view on your screen.

Library Of Congress

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As well as being able to search their library for a particular book title, you can also view their Digital Collections.   This includes a wide variety of things including photographs, newspapers, legislative records from Congress, and map collections.   I am a big fan of old maps so the last section was particularly fascinating for me, especially the old military campaign maps from the Civil War (they can also be downloaded to your computer).

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I also particularly enjoyed the Manuscript Reading Room, where you can view the private papers of Hannah Arendt, Sir Alexander Graham BellThomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.   There are literally hundreds of thousands more documents by various other people, all meticulously scanned online with foreign language documents accompanied with translations.   You can literally spend hours on this site and still not get through a small fraction of what the LOC offers.

Smithsonian Institute


The Smithsonian actually consists of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo.   So it is a huge institution, covering so many diverse subjects and this is reflected on their website.

Check out their art and design section with scans of tens of thousands of images which are searchable.   You can also view their History & Culture section, Science & Technology and even view a bug photo collection in their Museum of Natural History (not for the squeamish!)

British Museum


The British Museum is also a world-renowned place which utilises the internet to its full advantage.

You can search over 4,000 items in the Museum’s collection, including Chinese Jade and Sacred Objects from the Pacific.   Explore ancient cultures such as the Romans and Medieval Europe.   Gaze upon one of the Museum’s most prized objects, an Anglo-Saxon helmet.


The British Museum also embeds their own specially-made videos on the site including one on the Greek Parthenon (although there seems to be no way to embed the videos on your own site).  They even show you how to make a mummy (if a close relative dies and you feel so inclined to put them on display!)

British Library


One of the big players in the library/museum collection business and it’s no different with their online offerings.

This is an institution I have huge respect for as it houses some of history’s most important documents.   You can look at, and translate, the Magna Carta.  Using Shockwave Flash, you can “turn the pages” of some of the greatest books ever, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Lisbon Bible.   You can view and compare over 100 quartos by Shakespeare.  If that isn’t enough, you can listen to nearly 24,000 audio recordings and explore another 20,000.


Still not enough?   Then read and compare the Library’s two copies of the Gutenberg Bible.  Or read and compare the Library’s two editions of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.



The Hermitage is in St Petersburg, Russia and consists of the following :

The main architectural ensemble of the Hermitage situated in the centre of St Petersburg consists of the Winter Palace, the former state residence of the Russian emperors, the buildings of the Small, Old (Great) and New Hermitages, the Hermitage Theatre and the Auxiliary House. The museum complex also includes the Menshikov Palace and the Eastern Wing of the General Staff building, the Staraya Derevnya Restoration and Storage Centre and the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

As well as viewing a list of their current exhibitions, you can also browse countless other collections including paintings and drawings, archeological artefacts and costumes.



Most well known as the home of the Mona Lisa, the Louvre in Paris has 30,000 works of art which are digitised and searchable on their website.

The best place to start is the Overview, which leads off into the various different sections of the gallery.  As well as listing the various departments, you can also see the latest news and latest acquisitions.


They even have pages devoted to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code!

The one complaint I have is that their font is too small and so you have to increase the font size.  You can find out how to do that in Tina’s article.

National Library of Scotland


I am a little bit biased here, being Scottish myself, but I honestly believe that the National Library of Scotland has some fantastic exhibits worth looking at.   If you are ever in Edinburgh, I recommend a personal visit but for those unable to make it to Edinburgh, the NLS’s website has some fairly good digital collections.

See the last letter written by Mary Queen of Scots before her execution.  Turn the pages of a Gutenberg Bible.  View ancient maps of Scotland and zoom right in to get all the close details.   Read the entire First Edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped


But I think one of the most serious downsides to the NLS site is that they don’t have scans of their extensive Robert Burns collection.   They only talk about it and refer you to book titles which they have in their library.   How can they have a Scottish digital collection and not talk about Mr Burns?   That’s sacrilege ah tell ya.

I’m sure there are many other libraries and museums online with unique and valuable digital collections but I have to stop this post somewhere!    I hope this article has given you a bit of insight into the treasures available for view online and if you know of any more, please do tell us about them in the comments.

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Comments (9)
  • Perian

    The notion that putting collections online decreases attendance (for museums, at any rate. I’m not certain about libraries and digitized books) has been debunked a number of times. I’d be really curious to know if there is new information available that supports your assertion.

  • Conxa Rodà

    Good summary of good virtual resources, thank you.
    I’m afraid, though, I have to disagree regarding your statement that putting collections available online mean less need for visiting museums onsite. First, even the best digital reproduction of Mona Lisa can’t compete with viewing the original. There is an emotional factor of being in front of the work issued of the hands of the artist but also, watching the originals, you get a better approach to dimension, colours,etc. Secondly, browsing the collection online is a good way of become more interested to visit, to know more, or preselect the itinerary once in the museum.

    In our Museum, we put in 2008 some virtual tours on our website and in November 2009 we put a big part of our collection online
    Has this made a difference? Not in terms of attendance: we haven’t received less visitors (even with the economic recession). And yes regarding web surfing: online visitors have spent more time in our website and visited more pages than before, and spread the word through our social media networks.

    While digital technology allows many features not available onsite (zoom, personalization, different levels of information, interaction, sharing, etc.) I believe is not a question of confronting real versus digital: all ways have their publics and moments and serve diverse interests, they complement each other and both enrich visitor experience.


  • jcalkie

    Thanks for the post. It’s going to be very useful.

  • iffizarticles

    Excellent blog, very helpful.

  • iffizarticles

    Great read.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
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