Using Images for Research

How lucky we are to work in the digital age. How many of us are writing and suddenly decide we need an image to help with description or setting or even for inspiration? For me it happens regularly, if not daily.

Of course, I take my own photographs, but how has a scene changed over the years, over the centuries? Is it necessary to visit a place to be able to visualise it? I would say preferable but not always possible. Take this photo, I found it in The Victoria State LibFlinders St Station. Timms property on right - upmarket farmshoprary in 2012, before it was digitised. It shows the position of a farm shop in Elizabeth St, Melbourne. That farm shop was owned by a character in my WIP. It is the only visual reference I have of its position. It is now a Macdonald’s btw. To think it was once owned by the family. How much is it worth now? Heaven knows.

And it’s not just places but artefacts, dress, people, moments – you name it. Images are vital in adding colour in writing. So what image sites do I use?

Pinterest – I like Pinterest because it allows me to sort my images into boards. I have boards for places, for themes, such as writing fiction, book marketing and for my books. When I publish a book, the book cover with a link goes onto the book page. One can only hope!
I do intend to get round to creating a board for the books I have read, my books will go there too. Everyday I receive notification from Pinterest if someone saves one of my pinned images and most days they suggest other images I may like. It’s very interactive. It could take a lot of my time but I try to use it as and when. One word of caution. If you are adding images into Pinterest, be aware of copyright.

Library and Museum Image Collections

Most people think that you can find virtually any image via Google, but that is because libraries and museums are digitising their resources. As good as the images are, sometimes it is not a substitute for seeing them in the flesh. There are things you will pick up from a photograph that you may not see on screen. Also when items are brought together as in a museum exhibit, you will find things you didn’t know you wanted, such as an artefact in daily use in the 19th C but now forgotten. And, there are museums, so tiny and starved of funds, that digitising is a labour of love and dependent on the skills of volunteers. I found all sorts of useful images on display by visiting the Primitive Methodist Museum  in Cheshire and Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum in Norfolk and the Hull Maritime Museum where I found this image on the wall. It’s not a great photograph of the original paining  but it helpedDSC03003 me describe the paddle steamer of the 1820s in which my protagonist travelled across the Humber. More importantly there was an image which stopped me from making a fool of myself, showing the pier they tied up to. I had not thought the pier was that early and had the boat docking in the town port, some distance away.

Facebook Groups

You may not get access to hitherto unseen images via a Facebook History group, but what you do get, are keen amateur historians with their own wealth of knowledge. I belong to Grimsby Memories with hundreds if not thousands of images. If there is one that interests me, I may well ask questions. Who knows when the name of the road changed or that hotel opened or how it changed over the decades? Someone will, and they will delight in helping, perhaps adding photos for you to see.

Newspaper Images

Yes, back to newspapers. There aren’t that  many photographs in newspapers before the 20th C and they are often not good quality, but they can be the only source of a particular photograph, especially of people. Some newspaper databases, like Trove Australian newspapers allow you to search for illustrations by subject.

Art Galleries

Wherever we are in the world, we always visit art galleries, not just because my husband loves to paint. They are special places and sometimes you can be blown away by a particular painting. It speaks to you and you know you will hold that image within you forever.One of three paintings by the same artist of the same family in Brussels Art Gallery. I wish I had them all. Such as this one which I photographed in a Brussells art gallery, one of a series of three depicting pedlar family, walking towards us, resting at a meal, then walking away. So much expression, the weariness in their bodies, the lack of hope or joy, their outsideness of society. You can see more of Leon Frédéric’s work here.

These are the sources I use but of course there are many more. It would be great to have your own recommendations.


About Rosemary Noble

Writer, author, amateur historian and traveller
This entry was posted in Images, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Using Images for Research

  1. Angela Petch says:

    Great article. I can’t add anything very enlightening. I agree how lucky we are with digital help – but I’ve also been warned to check some information carefully. It isn’t always necessarily correct. Lots of research I do is orally too. It’s so amazing when you can talk to somebody who has experienced a part of history one is writing about. I shall copy your Pinterest idea. I have an account but don’t use it enough. I hope you get some tips from your readers.


  2. jessiecahalin says:

    Paintings also provide a fascinating history, and they often connote messages about the historical period. I can spend hours in an art gallery.


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