Commenting the Commons

Every time the Library of Congress adds new photographs to their Flickr Commons site, I jump right on them, flipping through looking for interesting photographs.

I especially love the News in the 1910s set, black-and-white news photographs from the Bain News Service. The Commons has an active community of fans and volunteers. People add notes directly on the photographs, identifying particular objects in the picture, calling attention to details or transcribing text from signs and packages, and they add tags to improve the findability of the photographs.

But my main interest is adding comments that provide more information about the person or event shown in the picture. The Bain collection is perfect for this — one of the reasons the Library of Congress selected this collection for Flickr is that they had minimal information for most of these pictures, and I’m not the only person who likes working on these. I often have to look through several pictures that other people have identified and described to find one to work on. (I almost wrote “to find one that needs me,” which is really how I think of this.)

And I wonder, sometimes, why we do this. I’m a librarian, and I do this kind of work for a living. Why are so many people jumping in to help research and catalog these photographs for free? If this were my job, it wouldn’t be nearly so much fun. I can’t speak for the whole Commons community, of course, but I know why I like participating in this. It’s satisfying to add that first comment to a photograph, providing basic information. It’s like being a kid at school raising my hand to answer a question: “I know! I know!” It feels good to be helpful, and to be part of a project. There’s often some back-and-forth discussion among the people leaving comments, as we do our detective work to identify some of these pictures.

But in addition to community spirit, we also have access to resources that make it pretty easy to get the information we need. This work wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun back in the old days, working with printed indexes and microfilm readers.

Here are some of the resources that I have found especially useful in working with the Library of Congress Flickr collection:

  • Wikipedia — Wikipedia links are often the first to appear on Commons photographs, identifying a person or event. It’s amazing how many articles there are, even on fairly obscure people, places and events, and how good most of the articles are. And as a free and open resource, it’s so very linkable.
  • New York Times Archive — The archives from 1951-1922 are available online as scanned images in PDF format, free and linkable. This is an incredible resource for all kinds of historical research, but it’s especially useful for the Bain photographs because of the date range.
  • Time — Time makes their complete archives available from 1923 on. For the Bain collection, Time articles can provide additional information on the life of people shown in the photographs. The obituaries are especially helpful in providing biographical information for political figures.
  • Google Books — These searchable books can be a great resource. For this photograph of actress Irene Bordoni, Flickr user swanq provides a link to a directly to biographical information in a book called Vaudeville, Old and New. For this photograph of Dr. Anna Shaw, I added a link to her autobiography on Google Books.

Government websites are useful for biographical information on political figures: for example, see this photograph of Morris Sheppard with a link to the Senate website. Even YouTube can be a useful source in certain instances — for example, I added links to YouTube videos to a photograph of Titta Ruffo, an opera singer.

There are many other useful sites — I nearly always start with Google and see where it leads me.

Flickr Commons Links

  • Flickr: The Commons — “The key goals of The Commons on Flickr are to firstly show you hidden treasures in the world’s public photography archives, and secondly to show how your input and knowledge can help make these collections even richer.”
  • Flickr Commons group — “A place for the Commons Community to share and discuss the truly awesome collections being made available in the Flickr Commons”
  • Indicommons — “The Indicommons blog represents outreach from the Flickr Commons group beyond Flickr, to broaden knowledge of The Commons among the public and civic institutions around the world and to increase participation by the public in the Commons.”

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