Open Your Social Media “Cabinet of Curiosities”

Two of the best rules for a great social media strategy are: 1) Always have a visual; and 2) Change up your posts. That means catching the reader’s eye and keeping things interesting with different types of content.

For images, you need “thumb-stoppers” that make your readers stop scrolling their phones and read your post. But finding those visuals is easier with some types of posts than others.

Let’s look at different types of posts and the kind of images they tend to rely on. Three types are:

  • Direct promotion of a product or business to drive sales or donations. Images could include photos of products or a nonprofit’s clients.
  • Shared content from other sources that educates and shows you’re on top of trends. These generally come with images.
  • Entertaining or engaging content that shows who you are and helps people relate to your business or group. This is where you see memes, gifs, fun photos of employees, etc.

It’s that third category where writer Austin Kleon’s suggestion to “open your cabinet of curiosities” can be especially helpful. The author of “Share Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered” is talking about creatively promoting yourself or your business by revealing what influences you. Things that interest and inspire you are “all worth sharing because they clue people in to who you are and what you do,” Kleon says.

To find visuals that interest and inspire your readers — and you — take a look at the many digital collections of libraries and museums that provide free and copyright-free downloadable images. It can take a bit of creative thinking and a way with keywords to find what you want. These collections are huge; the New York Public Library alone has nearly 680,000 images in its collection. But with some time and patience, these often unusual images can become a post or a creative way to illustrate a topic that lacks a visual element.

I spent some time — way too much time — browsing the NYPL’s digital collection and found a rich trove of vintage and antique images that could be used for a variety of businesses and nonprofits.

Say you’re a jewelry maker. The majority of your posts should have a photo of your work. But photo after photo of your products, gorgeous though they may be, could lead to more scrolling and less stopping as time goes on. How about shaking things up with a how-cool-is-this post featuring a photo of the engagement ring poet Percy Bysshe Shelley gave to his wife, Harriet Westbrook?

If you’re a brewer of craft beer, you’ll hit a bonanza of beer-related images at the NYPL: prints of beer halls, brewers’ guides from the 1800s, Art Deco ads, a photo of a man loading cases into a Model T truck, even a photo of the 1932 Beer Parade in New York City. (A collection of these images is on my Tumblr blog, Seeing Vintage.) Let the images inspire a bit of research. With the brewer’s guide, post about how many breweries it lists in your state compared with how many there are now. And what was the Beer Parade all about?

Graphic designers can find inspiration in early 20th century magazine or book covers. Give your followers a bit of history about avant garde design, the history of fonts such as Caslon or using type in design. Talk about what you like about a certain design. The collection of Soviet-era book jackets will have design geeks geeking out. (Check out Seeing Vintage for examples.)

For nonprofits whose work involves STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in education, there is an enormous amount of images related to astronomy, biology and architecture.

jazz singer alberta hunter

jazz singer alberta hunter

The NYPL collection is especially deep on theater and African American history. There’s also plenty of fashion, travel photos of exotic places, and prints of plants and animals. If you come across a quote you like, run a quick search to see if there is a photo or portrait of the person who said it, and use it for a meme.

The grouping of images can also be entertaining. Interior designers or plumbers might find “Modern plumbing no. 6” riveting. If you’re a theater company, check out “Photographs of actors who played Hamlet.”

The antique and vintage look of the NYPL images won’t suit every business or all audiences; that’s an aesthetic choice you have to make. If you’re curious about how these images might look on your pages, start by checking out my Tumblr, Seeing Vintage. I’ll be updating it regularly with images I find and some in my collection. That means I’ll be opening up my own cabinet of curiosities to reveal what interests and inspires me.

So, what’s in your cabinet?



Tips for searching the NYPL collection

Unless you are as obsessive as I am and want to view every page, use keyword searches. I think that feature could be a lot better; some listings could use more keywords. When you find something interesting, look at the other keywords for clues on how to find more of that. Many items come with interesting information about the donor or the history of the piece, which is another place to look for keywords to use.

Downloading tips

I would download at 760px rather than the smaller 300px. Different platforms work best with different sizes. Some images are even available to order as art prints.

Copyrights and fair use

As quick and easy as it is to take a screenshot, it’s just not OK when you’re using images or artwork under copyright. Artists, writers and other creatives should get credit, and possibly money, for their work. Most of the NYPL images are old enough to not be copyrighted, but there are a few that can’t be used without permission. (Most digital collections I’ve looked at will not allow downloads of copyrighted images.) You should always note where you found the image.

Each collection will have rules for when and how the images can be used and how they should be cited. And cite you must. For blogs or Instagram, you should have room for the full citation. For Facebook, I would use a URL shortener such as to link to the image’s page or put the citation in a comment. The NYPL provides exact citation formats in several styles, including MLA, Chicago/Turabian format and APA, as well as Wikipedia code.

In the NYPL collection, public domain images will say, “Can use without restriction.” If the library is unsure of the copyright, it asks for information on the image. It should be safe to use those images as long as you cite the source. If you only want images labeled public domain, you can check that box before searching.


Cigarette card: "Do you know the origin of the wedding ring?"
George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library. Do you know the origin of the wedding ring? Retrieved from

Engagement ring given by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. (1811). Engagement ring given to Harriet Westbrook by Percy Bysshe Shelley [view 1] Retrieved from

Feigenspan beer poster
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1895 - 1917).Feigenspan's bock beer. Retrieved from

Zlom (A Czechoslovakian poetry magazine)
Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. Zlom. (Title page) Retrieved from

Photo of Alberta Hunter in Paris, 1929
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1929). Alberta Hunter in ParisRetrieved from