How the Library of Congress Screwed Up By Putting Its Photos on Flickr

It’s been said that everyone and their uncle are putting their images on Flickr. That’s now become literally true. Uncle Sam has just uploaded some of his photographs on the photo-sharing Web site.

The Library of Congress has uploaded more than 3,000 photos from two of its most popular collections: The George Grantham Bain Collection and American Memory: Color Photographs from the Great Depression.

According to a post on Flickr’s blog, the rationale behind the partnership is twofold:

firstly, to increase exposure to the amazing content currently held in the public collections of civic institutions around the world, and secondly, to facilitate the collection of general knowledge about these collections, with the hope that this information can feed back into the catalogues, making them richer and easier to search.

Normally, I’d be happy to support projects that let people see good images — and there are some fantastic photos in these collections. It’s the reasoning (and the choice of Flickr) that bother me.

If the Library of Congress Can’t Show Photos, Give Them to Flickr

I’m sure it’s true that since the photos were uploaded they’ve received a spike in the number of views, but these images are already available on the Library of Congress’ own Web site. That they have to be searched there rather than browsed, and that the search function is fiddly rather than user-friendly, isn’t a reason to turn to Flickr.

It’s a reason to sort out the design of the Library of Congress’ Web site. That wouldn’t just increase the exposure of these images; it would also increase the exposure of all the other items available in the library’s digital catalog.

It’s one thing to put the photos where photo admirers are already located, but if the Library of Congress had brought those photography fans to its own site with a well-designed gallery, it could have shown them the rest of its collection, too.

But the reason the library put the images on Flickr isn’t just that it wants people to see them. It also wants to use the community as free librarians. As the library’s blog explains:

We want people to tag, comment and make notes on the images, just like any other Flickr photo, which will benefit not only the community but also the collections themselves. For instance, many photos are missing key caption information such as where the photo was taken and who is pictured. If such information is collected via Flickr members, it can potentially enhance the quality of the bibliographic records for the images.

And potentially damage the quality of the records, too. Flickr isn’t Wikipedia and photographs aren’t informational essays. The most common contribution by a Flickr member to a photograph isn’t to explain how the lighting could have been corrected or offer extra information about an image, but simply “Great capture”… and a hope that the photographer will look at and fave their images in return.

“Amazing Photo!”… Yawn

So far, that seems to be what’s happening with the Library of Congress’ images. Instead of someone saying, “Hey, that’s my great aunt Betty!” everyone is saying … you guessed it: “Amazing photo… great shot,” etc. In fact, rather than receiving information about its photos, the Library of Congress is supplying information by answering viewers’ questions about how the images were digitized.

Even the tagging seems to be getting out of hand. The image above by David Bransby of a woman aircraft worker has received tags that range from “North American Aviation” to “woman,” “red,” and “blouse.” The problem with everyone becoming an editor is that no one is an editor.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of all of this, though, is what effect it might have on the way users see rights. Flickr created a new rights tag for the Library of Congress’ images, one that goes beyond Creative Commons and All Rights Reserved. The photos are all described as having “No known copyright restrictions.”

That isn’t quite the same as not having any copyright restrictions, and do Flickr members really need yet another copyright rule — even if, like the others, they plan to ignore it?

[tags]Flickr, Library of Congress, photography, photo-sharing[/tags]

2 Responses to “How the Library of Congress Screwed Up By Putting Its Photos on Flickr”

  1. Like most government programs other than the military these days, they probably didn't think they had sufficient resources to upgrade their own technology and personnel.

  2. I'm not related in any way to the Library of Congress, so I can't speak to the reasons why they decided to do some of the things they did in this case. But I can speak to some of the issues libraries.

    It may come as a great shock, but most librarians aren't actually web designers; they are in fact librarians. Now that's not to say that there aren't many librarians who have some html, Java, design, or other skills, but for all but a few places their primary job is something other than minding their library's website AND THEN on top of that job they do work with their library's web pages. And, as anyone can tell you who has ever had a personal web page, websites (especially ones as extensive as the LoC) can be more than a full time job.

    And it may also come as a surprise that libraries (particularly those who get all or most of their funds from tax dollars) don't have huge budgets. And those limited budgets have to be divided between paying reference staff, doing conservation work, scanning materials, cataloging, keeping the building in repair, etc., etc. - making websites one among many expenses. And web redesigns (particularly if you can't do them inhouse) aren't cheap, never mind the fact that you can't just redesign your site once and then leave it alone for ten years. You may have to lay out a significant expense frequently as times (and technologies) change. It doesn't take any great leap of logic to say that, given limited time, funds and staff, it might be a good idea to allow the librarians to do what they do best while taking advantage of the Flickr folks doing what they do best.

    As for the tags given to the photographs, it's long been known in libraries that the way librarians catalog images is not how people search for them. Librarians index things like photographer, location, time period, the names of the people in the image, etc. - things that you need to know to understand the historical context. But many folks looking for images aren't looking for a specific person or place, they don't care if it's "Sue Bob, Aug. 1943" because they're looking for a cool photo of a "woman" with "red" lipstick wearing a "blouse." Now, given the volume of images that most special collections/university libraries/etc. have, there is no way that anyone would ever have the time to index ALL images to that level of detail. Maybe the public can help with that? I don't know, I'm not completely sold myself on that part of the partnership. But since nothing like this has ever been done, we've had no way to know what might happen or how useful it might/might not be. It's wonderful that the LoC is taking the risk there since there are many other libraries all over the country who will be watching the experiment closely to see what happens.

    If my answers don't suit you, or if you want more information about these issues, then my suggestion is that you call the university or special collections library near you. Because my guess is that most of these questions could have been answered in a 10 minute phone call with any librarian. If you'll tell me where you're located I'm sure I could suggest a few. Or if you'd rather not do that, then I'd encourage you to write these questions in the comments of the LoC blog. I'm sure that, much like with the folks who are asking questions on Flickr, the staff of the Library of Congress would be more than happy to answer your questions directly. After all, answering questions is at the core of what librarians do.

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