“Library of Congress Photos on Flickr — ‘Mysteries that seem to be beyond all understanding’
Above in the headline, a comment by one frequent annotater of the Library of Congress's photos on Flickr.
Wrote Noam Cohen in a January 19, 2009 New York Times article, "… to harness the public's knowledge about old photographs, the Library of Congress a year ago began adding photographs with no known restrictions to a Flickr service called the Commons. The Library of Congress started with 3,500 photos and adds 50 a week. The project relies on Flickr's ability to allow users to leave comments below the picture or even within the picture to fill in the blanks [top]."
"The Library of Congress photographs, in the first 24 hours of being posted last January, received 11,000 tags — ways of categorizing and connecting the photographs."
The Times story follows.
Historical Photos in Web Archives Gain Vivid New Lives
IN barely 100 years,
photography has gone from a magical, even mystical process, to an
afterthought. Nothing better captures how much of an afterthought
photography is today than the banal miracle that is Flickr, the
photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo that has more than three billion photographs online. Billion.
“Flickr is to photography what the Pacific Ocean is to water, what Times Square is to humanity,” the cultural critic Luc Sante
wrote in an essay for the January-February 2008 issue of Photograph
magazine. “Flickr is a great leveler, sweeping away distinctions
between amateurism and expertise, art and record-keeping.”
Against this backdrop, there are the relics from the earlier age of
photography, historical photographs that have been preserved in
national libraries and archives or photo agencies and news media
operations. Their relative scarcity alone can make them seem like
They, too, are finding their way onto the Internet. Compared with
the stream of photographs being uploaded (an estimated three million a
day on Flickr alone), the historical material can seem a mere trickle.
Yet over the last year there have been important new efforts to put
these classics online, both to find new audiences for material
typically used by researchers and to use those audiences to breathe new
meaning into photographs from long ago.
Last month, in what is believed to be the largest donation online of
“free” photographs — that is, unrestricted for commercial or
noncommercial use — the German national archive uploaded nearly 100,000
historical photographs to the Wikimedia Commons, the virtual archive
for material used in Wikipedia articles.
Wikipedia articles include only photographs that have been licensed
in the freest way, and there must be a stipulation that the copyright
holder either agrees to such terms or that no one holds a copyright.
It is for this reason that articles on Wikipedia for famous people like, say, the basketball great Julius Erving,
frequently have no photograph. And another basketball star, George
Gervin, is illustrated by an oddly shaped photograph that, as a note
explains, originally showed Mr. Gervin posing with Senator John Cornyn of Texas. Mr. Cornyn has been cropped out, but since it was found on his official site, it is in the public domain. Harsh.
The photographs donated by the German archive have a lower
resolution than what you would see in print (those still cost money),
but are fine for online use. These lower-resolution photographs have
been available at the archive site,
although watermarked and with rules against commercial use (an
unreasonable restriction by Wikipedia terms). The archive agreed to
change, recognizing that the number of people who visit Wikipedia so
dwarfs its own online visitor traffic.
As would be expected from a trove of 100,000 photographs, there are
the bizarrely mundane and the breathtaking: in 1984, transporting
lumber in Bad Berka in Thuringia, Germany; in 1919, a family of 11
living in poverty in a single room, photographer unknown.
The archive’s motives were not entirely selfless; it hopes to
harness the Wikipedia editors to improve the cataloging of the
photographs, said Oliver Sander, who is responsible for the collection
at the archive. There are 58,000 people in these photographs who lack
an ID number assigned by the German library, and the archive would like
Wikipedia editors to help identify who is in these photographs and add
these codes. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity to implement
this with our list of people,” Dr. Sander said. “Maybe Wikipedia
members could add this ID to our list. That was the first benefit from
Thus far, 29,000 photographs of people have been so coded, Dr. Sander said.
In a similar move to harness the public’s knowledge about old photographs, the Library of Congress a year ago began adding photographs with no known restrictions to a Flickr service called the Commons. The Library of Congress started with 3,500 photos and adds 50 a week.
The project relies on Flickr’s ability to allow users to leave
comments, below the picture or even within the picture to fill in the
blanks. In a report assessing the project (conclusion: it has been a
huge success) the library detailed the information that had been
gleaned from Flickr users.
There are tiny signs whose texts have been discerned; a
photographer’s logo, Byron of New York, “which provided a fundamental
new piece of information and connections to many related photos”; a
photograph that originally was described as showing “industrial
buildings and a town in Mass., possibly Brockton,” now has been
identified as being a shoe factory, indeed in Brockton.
Flickr is choosing to move slowly in its commons, which it doesn’t
see “as a revenue driver,” said Kakul Srivastava, general manager of
“It depends on what your goals are — if your goal is to get as many
photographs up there as possible; uploading photographs is not a
technical issue whatsoever,” she said. “Instead, it is about being able
to share these photos in more manageable chunks and take the time to
absorb the content, to discuss it.”
The Library of Congress photographs, in the first 24 hours of being
posted last January, received 11,000 tags — ways of categorizing and
connecting the photographs. To Ms. Srivastava, the reflections from
users about a photograph of dockworkers — discussions about segregation
in America and changing work habits — are highly relevant to the
One frequent annotater of Library of Congress photographs of New
York City on Flickr goes by the name Epicharmus. “I’m not sure I’ve
‘discovered’ anything so much as made connections between bits of
information that are already public,” he wrote in an e-mail message.
The library’s photos, he added, “have mysteries that seem to be beyond
all solving — could there be any person alive that can correctly
identify the location of this tenement or that factory wall?”