Free Library of Reference Books for Artists, Illustrators, and Letterers
If you haven’t stumbled upon Archive.org yet, get ready to lose some time sifting through beautiful old books. Archive.org is a non-profit with a mission of providing universal access to books, so anyone without access to libraries can still view, print, and share the wealth of knowledge stored in the library.
If you’re like me and you live in a tiny city with a library that basically just has romance novels and kids books, then this resource is a lifesaver. The site is an incredible bank of imagery for artists, designers, and anyone with a penchant for old books, so beware if you have important things to get done today!
Their books in the creative commons are always available for viewing, but newer books require an account to view. If you create a free account you can “borrow” books for 14 days. So just like a real library, books can be checked out, and you can join a waitlist for any books that are already checked out by someone else.
One important note for artists and designers using these books as references — books that are 100+ years old are typically in the creative commons and are safe to use as a reference in your work. However I wouldn’t recommend using anything under 100 years old because it could still be protected by a copyright. Archive.org allows anyone to upload books, so be sure to check the date printed on the book before using anything in your artwork!
A quick tip for searching the site to be sure you look at the oldest books first:
- Enter a search term and tap GO (I searched for ‘botanical illustrations’)
- Select ‘Search Text Contents’ under the search bar so that you’re only searching books (not videos or single images)
- Set the search order to ‘Date Published’
- Reverse the sort order by clicking the little arrow by the words ‘Sort By’
I have found so many amazing books on this site, I couldn’t possibly share them all here, but I wanted to share a few examples of the beautiful imagery you can find:
Looking for some inspiration for your hand lettering or font making? There is no end to the amount of typography inspiration on this site. Tip: once you find a book you like, scroll down below it to see similar books. I found most of the books listed here that way!
If you’ve ever wished you had a go-to resource for borders, flourishes, and illustration ideas, check out these three books for tons of ideas.
Whether you’re looking for fine line drawing, watercolors, or just composition ideas, you’ll find a seemingly never ending supply of botanical inspiration on Archive.org!
That is just a tiny sampling of some of my personal favorites, but of course you’ll discover tons of books that fit your personal style and interests. Discover something interesting? Send me a message, I’d love to see it!
Not sure how to use these resources? Check out my class on Art Nouveau Illustration to see how I turn vintage inspiration into modern illustrations.