Trips to Byzantium, Golconda and Gotham


This week I was made aware that a whole universe of wonderful things exists about which I had little knowledge. More correctly, I knew some of these things existed. I just didn’t know that you could get so many of them for free.

Most readers probably know about eBooks, Kindles, Nooks, iPads and the like. Apple’s iTunes is now the coin of the realm in the world of music. Most libraries, museums and cultural institutions have an online presence where you can avail yourself to a part of their holdings. These are terrific portals to experience new things, but what I just discovered is to knowledge and entertainment what a pothole is to the Grand Canyon.

In my defense, I am an active user of Google Books (http://books.google.com) and Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org). So, it’s not like I didn’t know this kind of thing existed, but I had no idea the extent of what was available.

To begin, there’s www.openlibrary.org. Here you can read over one million books absolutely for free. If you’re looking for something a little obscure or arcane, this is the place you need to be.

Larger than that is the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). It is the modern equivalent of the Great Library of Alexandria. It is a repository for not just thousands of books, but also archived websites, hundreds of thousands of videos, audio recordings, legacy software, television news and many other images.

In under 10 minutes, I found episodes of the old Dragnet radio drama, a teen hygiene film from the 1950s, a book on the art of caricature drawing and a ColecoVision software emulator. Whatever your interest, there’s something for you here.

Another Golconda of information is www.openculture.com. In addition to offerings similar to those described above, you can find listings for completely free college courses (but usually not for actual college credit) in hundreds of fields of study. You can also take free language lessons and find free textbooks. This site also has links to hundreds of free resources tailored to the needs and interests of students K-12.

What started me on this journey to find buried digital treasure was a link from my favorite news story aggregator, News360. In my daily feed there was an article about the online collection of the Guggenheim Museum in New York (www.guggenheim.org).

They’ve recently put several dozen new exhibit catalogs online. They also offer videos, audio recordings and many wonderful ways to experience their collection. So too have the National Gallery of Art (www.nga.gov), the Dutch Rijksmuseum (https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (http://www.metmuseum.org/research/metpublications).

In a very similar vein, the J. Paul Getty Museum (www.getty.org) just opened its Virtual Library with the release 250 art books from its catalog. As one might imagine, the books run the gamut of tastes in art. Lastly, London’s Wellcome Library (http://wellcomelibrary.org) recently placed over 100,000 images from its collection in the creative commons (i.e. free to use).

In short, the trove described above is nothing less than a magical transport across time, space and culture. Parents wanting to expand their child’s horizons can do so without any expense. For that matter, anyone wanting their world to be more informed, entertained or beautiful only needs to start clicking.

For all the filth and furry for which the Internet is an open gusher, these websites are a testament to human creativity, curiosity and endurance. The word, “awesome,” is woefully overused in our modern parlance, but the Byzantine wealth at our fingertips justifies its enthusiastic application here. If you have any kind of Internet access, you now have no excuse for ever spending another second bored.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.