By JOHN SAYERS
Two very different ways of examining Library photographs have one underlying theme: users of the Library’s collections can play an important role in identifying assets, assisting curators and reference staff, and enhancing the overall user experience for their fellow researchers.
In the first example, a user of the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog raised questions about images that led curator Carol Johnson to discover three “new” glass negatives from Lincoln’s second inauguration. (See related story.)
The second example is the result of a new pilot project the Library has undertaken with Flickr, the enormously popular photo-sharing site and innovator in Web 2.0 functions (these include second-generation Web tools that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users, such as social networking, wikis, communications tools and folksonomies). Besides robust photo-display tools, Flickr is known for allowing its users to describe their own and other photos through the practice of “tagging,” or describing individual items with one or more descriptive terms.
The Library test entails loading 3,100 images from two popular P&P collections (color photos from the 1930s and 1940s from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information collection and 1910s-era news photos from the Bain News Service) for which no copyright restrictions are known to exist. The pilot was set up with two goals: to give better and wider access to the collections to a new and appreciative audience, and to explore new ways to acquire the best possible information about these collections for the benefit of researchers and posterity.
“P&P has long done a great job of giving the visual collections strong roots through cataloging, digitizing, reference, curatorial and collection-management services,” said Helena Zinkham, acting chief of the Prints and Photographs Division. “With their new Flickr wings, our wonderful images can bring enjoyment to lots more people, including those who don’t realize that libraries have historical photos.”
For its part in the pilot, Flickr has created a new publication model for publicly held photographic collections called “The Commons”. While Flickr was started for creators of photos—and lets those creators indicate the rights to their photos from “All Rights Reserved” to a series of permissions for reuse—the new model allows for a new rights category on Flickr: “No known copyright restrictions.” Flickr hopes its Commons project will also capture the imagination and involvement of other public institutions who serve as stewards of photos.
The pilot project team will continue to monitor the photos, how they are tagged, and the many ways they may be used. P&P staff will evaluate the comments and tags, not only to better identify image content, but also to establish best practices in collecting and evaluating their reference use. Flickr project manager George Oates joined Library project staff to discuss the pilot with Library staff at an overflowing presentation on Jan. 29, which can viewed online at www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/.
“It’s especially gratifying to be able to celebrate our dual roles,” said Zinkham. “We make the collections shine through our own skill and experience, while also broadening public participation in developing access and knowledge for historic photos through Flickr.”
More information on the pilot project can be found at www.loc.gov/rr/print/flickr_pilot.html.
On the same day the new Lincoln negatives were announced, the pilot team quietly launched the two collections on Flickr. The Library publicized the project on its blog as did Flickr. The teams sat back and watched, curious about what the photo-sharing network and the broader blogging community might make of all this.
The response was staggering.
By the end of the first day, according to Flickr’s blog, users “added over 4,000 unique tags across the collection (about 19,000 tags were added in total; for example, “Rosie the Riveter” has been added to 10 different photos).”
Dozens of e-mails were received from grateful users, often simple one-line greetings, from “Thank you,” to “I LOVE what you are doing,” to “You guys rock!” Other users were more specific: “This is one of the smartest things the federal government has done.” “I never would have accessed these photos under different circumstances, and I am very excited to go through them.” “This is also a great use of my taxpayer dollars, and I dearly hope that the postings are expanded as time allows.”
In a blog post on Day Two of the pilot, Library Director of Communications Matt Raymond observed, “The response … has been nothing short of astounding. You always hope for a positive reaction to something like this, but it has been utterly off the charts—from the Flickr community, from the blogosphere, from the news media—it is nothing short of amazing.”
By the end of the first week, the Library’s photos on Flickr generated 3 million page views. More than 7,000 Flickr account owners added the Library as a contact, the equivalent of having the institution on their personal lists as a “friend.” Just under a third of the 3,100 photos generated comments, and more than two-thirds have been noted by at least one user as a “favorite.”
Outside of the Flickr community, leading bloggers have been equally effusive. More than 1,600 posts, including opinion-leading blogs such as Boing Boing, TechCrunch, Life Hacker, Mashable, Read/Write Web, Instapundit, Search Engine Land, Internet Marketing News, Laughing Squid, Wired’s Compiler, LAist, Foundation and Open Culture have praised the Library for its innovative partnership and speculated at its potential.
Mainstream media have also been complimentary, from NPR to Roll Call to Newsweek.com. (See related story.) The images have even inspired creativity, from storytelling based on the photos to a YouTube video tribute to the project, “Flickr & Library of Congress: It’s a Beautiful Thing.”