Crowd-sourcing a Library of Congress photo archive

A koan for our digital age: if a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the right word worth? The Library of Congress aims to find out. The venerable old institution has teamed up with Flickr, the popular social-networking and photo-sharing site, to create "Flickr Commons." By putting 3,115 of its archival photographs on the site, the LOC hopes Flickr's community of users will apply tags—usually one-word descriptions—to them. The photos are already online at the library's Web site, but the LOC hopes Flickr's 23 million members will tell them something about the images they don't already know. "It's akin to bringing the mountain to Muhammad," says Matt Raymond, the LOC's director of communications. "It's an excellent way to use the technology."

If giving the unwashed masses the power to tag (effectively index and organize) the LOC's photo archive sounds, well, potentially risky, the response has been instantaneous and overwhelmingly positive. Within 24 hours of the project's launch last week, all 3,115 images had been viewed at least once (with 650,000 total views), more than 500 pictures had received comments, and 4,000 unique tags had been added. And some of them are already proving useful: users have added new information in tags and comments to portraits of boxers, sulky racers, base stealers, Riveting Rosies and many, many more.

The LOC's catalog is, of course, the property of We the People. So in a way it seems natural to tap into our aggregate wisdom to learn more about the pictures that define us. Consider it a massive wikigallery. The photos in Flickr Commons are divided into two groups. The first is a batch of 1,615 gorgeous and surprising color photographs taken between 1939 and 1944. Shot by Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information photographers during the Depression and World War II, the vibrant pictures bring new life to our black-and-white past. The second photoset comes courtesy of the long-defunct Bain News Service and compiles 1,500 journalistic snapshots from 1910 to 1912. As the photographs that comprise the Flickr Commons are all well over 50 years old, there are no known copyright restrictions on any of them—meaning people can post them on their blogs, republish them and generally do what they wish with them.

So far the discourse in comments and tags has been largely respectful—only sometimes does it get tediously snarky—and the LOC is monitoring the Commons for any abuse. And perhaps predictably, the blog buzz has been enthusiastic. Of course, not everyone is thrilled. "It strikes me as a museum without a curator. It's all on display with a million guestbooks," says David Hall, who runs Shorpy.com, a "100-year-old photo blog." Hall, a Washington Post editor who is on leave to develop Shorpy, mines the highest-resolution holdings from the library and other sources. (The Washington Post Co. owns the Washington Post and NEWSWEEK.) He then touches them up digitally (something the LOC does not do) and sells high-quality prints. The resulting site has a much more organized, hand-picked feel than the Commons, with old photographs of more consistently astonishing quality and resolution. The community feel is there, too: commenters have added information about a number of photographs—including the portrait of the site's namesake, a 14-year-old coal mine "greaser." Still, although some might detect a whiff of opportunism about making a profit by printing someone else's photographs, Hall shrugs that "these were paid for by the taxpayers and they're public domain."

In an interesting twist, on the same day that the Flickr Commons project was announced, three LOC images from 1865 thought to have been pictures of different events were all revealed to have been taken at Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration. A reader browsing through the library's online Civil War collection noticed three glass negatives identified as having possibly been taken during the Ulysses S. Grant administration. The reader thought the pictures were mislabeled. Carol Johnson, the library's curator of photography, compared the three questionable negatives to the two known negatives of Lincoln's second inauguration and confirmed the user’s suspicion. And that was just on the LOC's clunky old Web site. Multiply that by 23 million Flickr members and you may just have the answer to our koan.

Join the Discussion