Mule 'Denver' swinging by Eadweard Muybridge, National Museum of American History [SIA-2004-41356]

Some IIIF-y Collections

The Smithsonian Institution Archives adopts the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF).

If you are someone who likes to view our collections, you may have noticed what looks like a slight cosmetic change in our collections pages. Honestly, even if you use our site heavily, you may have missed it. A side-by-side would show all that really changed was a new title bar, a few new buttons on the viewer, and another new button down at the bottom right next to the permissions request button:

Two nearly identical color screenshots of the compared side by side. Left is

And really, the cool thing isn’t the viewer itself, but rather why we changed the viewer in the first place. That change came shortly after the Smithsonian adopted the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) back in May 2018. The viewer switch was simply a switch to a IIIF enabled viewer.

What is IIIF? To quote IIIF, it is a “set of shared application programming interface (API) specifications for interoperable functionality in digital image repositories.” What that really means is it’s a way for cultural heritage institutions to make their collections accessible and shareable via a common protocol. In short, it allows people to pull images from different institutions and view them side by side in the same player. For example, this version I pulled from, one image from the National Museum of American Art, the other from our collection:

A side by side comparison of two color photographs. Left is a golden human shaped robot standing nex

The way you can go about doing something like the example above is by using the manifest files. In order to get ours, it’s as simple as clicking on that new, yellow IIIF button next to the reference request. The site will open a page that has a bunch of code. You don’t need to do much other than drag the URL into any IIIF enabled player. In this example, Mirador.

Animation depicting dragging the IIIF manifest file from one of our collections into a IIIF enabled

But wait, there is more!

As you may have noticed with our collections,  there’s this ability to zoom in and out quickly. What actually happens is when the page loads, a smaller images is loaded to the viewer, and when you zoom into a region, an image server slices up the region your viewing and loads that. So you are never loading more than you need. This cuts down on load times, server bandwidth used, etc.

Remember I mentioned before that IIIF uses standardized API to function, one of which is the image API that powers the tiling functionality. So, let’s take, for example, a series of cyanotypes from the National Museum of American History of a mule, named Denver, on a swing:


A set of blue and white photographs which are hard to see against a brown background

It’s really hard to see what’s going on at that size, but if we use the image API, we can take the url and provide it with some coordinates so the url will swich from:,/0/default.jpg

and our image now looks like this:

A blue and white photograph of a mule on a large swing.

It’s still the same image source, the server is just returning a different section of it. One that’s a bit more useful. In fact, we can have a bit of fun with it, by using community contributed code (in this case, Compariscope) to cycle through the different cyanotype slides. This puts these motion study images into motion, and what we are left with is a clip of a mule, on a swing:

I hope you enjoy trying it out!

B & W animation of a horse swinging on a pendulum

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