Asking the Public to Mark Up Images


The photo sharing website and the Library of Congress in the United States have created a very interesting collaboration between a Web 2.0 business and a major cultural institution. The Commons, as it is known, invites the general public to mark up (they say „describe“) images from the collection of the Library of Congress and to discuss those images via the Flickr website.

In its first phase, the project offers visitors access to 3,115 images from the Library’s digital collection of more than 1 million historical images.


As this image shows, the photographs selected for inclusion in the pilot project are of high quality. As nice as it is to have access to these images through the Flickr interface, that access is already provided by the Library, albeit in a very un-user friendly way. What will be of much more interest to historians and other researchers is the ways that visitors to the site have begun to engage in discussion of these images.

Back in 2006 I speculated that one day large institutions like the Library of Congress (LOC) would begin to make their collections available for public tagging and I wondered what that tagging would look like once it began. What I did not anticipate at the time was that rather than setting up their own interface to permit the public to begin tagging their digital collections, institutions like the LOC would simply take advantage of existing platforms like Flickr.

So what does public tagging look like once it begins? This particular image has 42 tags inserted by Flickr users and none of those tags is remotely offensive or silly (the big concern of those in the library and archive community who have argued that I’m crazy to think it will be okay for the public to start marking up their collections).

And as the commentary on this image indicates, Flickr users have actually added value to the Library’s metadata on the images. As you scroll down, you’ll see that one of the commenters noticed a transcription error, pointed it out, and received a thank you from the Library staff. Although I certainly did not look at all 3,115 images, it does appear that the general public can be quite helpful to historians, archivists, and librarians when it comes to making the most of historical information posted online–if only we give them the chance.

It is also worth noting that there is already a Zotero interface for Flickr, so all of the metadata for any of these images can be easily downloaded with the click of a mouse. At present, Zotero does not capture the discussion–only the meta data (including all of the tags).

My hope is that other large digital image libraries will be inspired to make their collections open to public description/mark up, whether through a platform like Flickr, or via their own in house interfaces. The historical project can only be advanced thereby.

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