Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums uses FLickr to bring awareness to its collection of images, including this from Criminal Faces of North Shields, taken between 1902 and 1916. Image courtesy of TWAM
The Commons, launched by the Library of Congress and Flickr to open up archives of long-forgotten images, is celebrating its fifth anniversary. The results of this social experiment are overwhelming, finds Philip Wolmuth, who speaks with some of the 50 institutions that tore down their walls
Since its launch in January 2008, public museums, libraries and archives have posted almost a quarter of a million images to a special area of Flickr, created to enable cultural heritage institutions to share photographs that have no known copyright restrictions.
The Commons was the initiative of the US Library of Congress, which was looking for a platform from which it could make its large photographic collection more accessible, establishing a new rights model on the popular photo-sharing site to allow non-commercial users to share, download and comment on its uploaded images without payment.
In the past five years, 55 other institutions – in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several countries in mainland Europe – have signed up, contributing an extraordinary range of material that had previously been largely unknown to the general public.
The aims were twofold: to increase access to publicly held photography collections, and to provide ways for viewers to contribute information and knowledge. Looking back on the occasion of its fifth anniversary, it is clear that The Commons has achieved both of these goals – but success has required significant and ongoing input, and has seen participating institutions adopt a variety of strategies for developing new audiences. Crucial to all of them is a recognition of the nature of social media, and the need to engage with the communities that use them.
The Library of Congress kicked off with photographs from two of its collections: a set of 1500 images from the Bain News Service dating from 1910-12; and another of little-known colour images taken by photographers from the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information between 1939 and 1944.
Within five months, views of the Bain images, which had previously been available on the Library of Congress’ own website, increased by 60 percent from the previous year. Within 10 months, the photographs had been viewed 10.4 million times, over 15,000 Flickr members had made the Library of Congress a ‘contact’, and 4548 of the 4615 photos then available had at least one community-provided tag.
The Bain News Service pictures were part of a collection of almost 40,000 glass negatives, spanning 1900-1920 and covering sports events, theatre, celebrities, crime, strikes, disasters and political activities, with a special emphasis on life in New York City.
However, many of the images came with very limited caption detail. According to Bronwen Colquhoun, a researcher at Newcastle University’s International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies – who has worked closely with the Library of Congress’ Flickr team, the National Maritime Museum and Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums – by regularly adding new material and engaging with the Flickr users who contribute tags and comments, the Library of Congress has built up an active group of researchers.
“New uploads of images from the Bain collection are currently running at 50 per week and, without fail, they get feedback. They have been able to crowd-source information from a committed and loyal photographic community, which they support by moderating contributions, citing sources, pointing out connections to other available material, answering enquiries and thanking people for their input.” More than 4500 catalogue records have been updated as a result – with a date, a location, a context, or a name.
The National Archives – the UK’s single biggest Commons contributor (currently with 17,357 items) – has experienced a similar expansion of its audience. According to marketing and communications co-ordinator Laura Cowdrey, its Flickr page has had 5.5 million views since it was set up in November 2008. “Before, anyone wanting to see this material would have had to come to Kew. Now we are getting between 3000 and 10,000 online visits a day.”
Cabin in Southern US, Wolcott, Marion Post, 1910-1990. Part of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs collection held by the Library of Congress and published on Flickr's The Commons.
Its most recent additions are the result of the ongoing digitisation of a large collection of colonial era images from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, being issued as a series of sets under the title Through A Lens. Again, many have limited or inaccurate captions, often reflecting the priorities of their time. Typically, Cowdrey suggests, in an image from the Africa set, “a visiting dignitary might be named, but the rest of those in the photo, or the location, will not be known. By posting online, we can access those with local knowledge and add valuable detail to our records”.
It’s not just national collections that are benefiting. Prior to joining The Commons, a rather smaller UK contributor, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM), had shown some of its photographs on its own, non-interactive website.
According to John Coburn, TWAM’s digital co-ordinator, interest “skyrocketed” when it joined The Commons in April 2011, with views often hitting 4000 a day. That figure excludes views of downloaded images posted on other social media sites, which serve to generate new audiences.
The material now available includes photographs of the 1951 construction of the Tyne pedestrian and cyclist tunnels, and The Criminal Face of North Shields, a wonderful set of large format police portraits from 1902.
TWAM’s use of Flickr is part of a strategy aimed at encouraging what Coburn calls “rich engagement” through social media. A recent project, Uncovering Archives, undertaken with the assistance of Colquhoun, went further, inviting Flickr users to step out of cyberspace and co-curate a set of un-digitised photographs for The Commons from TWAM’s shipbuilding collections.
Nine local photographers and Flickr users took part, translating a virtual online engagement into real-world visits to look through previously neglected offline prints, and then shooting their own images inspired by what they had found. The resulting exhibition, Past Continuous, can be seen on both The Commons and at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne until 03 May.
For Emma Thom, senior web content co-ordinator at the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford, The Commons has expanded the concept of what a museum is. “It used to be the case that museums were seen as four walls – and it’s great if people want to come and look at what we’ve got – but this is an opportunity to take the museum to other people. We’re taking an integrated approach, working with curators and collections teams, to have a stronger web presence, linking our postings to The Commons to our programmes.”
The “no known copyright restrictions” category devised to cover postings to The Commons might have rung alarm bells in the minds of some rights holders, particularly those campaigning against the Orphan Works proposals contained in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill making its way through the British Parliament.
But, according to Thom, copyright issues have not had a big impact on what the NMM is able to do. “Our emphasis is on sharing pictures that are copyright-free – that is what The Commons is all about – and we have thousands of photographs that are out of copyright.” The same is true for many of the other member institutions, with large numbers of images out of copyright or – as is the case of the National Archives (which has some six million) and the Library of Congress – with collections that are largely Government-generated and covered by Crown Copyright or its US equivalent.
Making work freely available for non-commercial use can also result in direct financial benefit. Many of the member institutions run separate image libraries to deal with sales of commercial licences, and there is anecdotal evidence that these have been boosted by the exposure given to the various collections via the Flickr scheme.
The figures demonstrate that putting public collections on to The Commons has done what it set out to do, both in terms of expanding audiences and in adding value to the records through crowd-sourcing relevant information.
But, as many commercial photo libraries have found to their cost, digitisation takes time and money. Thom is clear about what is necessary. “We try to have a constant feed of content to The Commons. The ‘regular and often’ approach works best, because you have an opportunity to communicate. If you post and then leave it, and not do anything about it, you’re not going to have a strong community, and they’re not going to be looking out for the next thing you do.” Many of the most active Commons members also boost their presence with blogs, pieces on their own websites and contributions to online discussion groups.
That level of input takes a lot of work, and some have been unable to find the necessary resources. The Library of Congress has a team of nine supporting their Flickr initiative. TWAM has two volunteers, one a photography student, sourcing and digitising items from the archive, and is steadily adding to its Commons photostream. That of the National Library of Ireland, which adds a new photograph every day and has an active user group, is moderated by one person. But there are a small number of member institutions that either could not, or would not, put in the time, and their Commons pages languish unattended and uncommented upon, sadly confirming the need for Thom’s “regular and often” active cultivation of audiences.
Another pitfall is the reliance on a platform over which the participants have little control. Flickr was founded as an independent startup in 2004 and was bought by Yahoo! a year later. For a while, Flickr flourished under its new ownership, but its relationship with its parent company has been fraught, with attempts to build new features and its user base often stymied by Yahoo!’s corporate priorities.
However, others have detected a recent improvement in fortunes, with more staff being hired and new features appearing. In regard to The Commons, James Morley, a vintage photo enthusiast who monitors activity on the site, has noted an upsurge in new postings in the last year, and is optimistic. “I think Flickr Commons is due a second lease of life. Flickr itself is escaping from the suffocation that arose from becoming part of a multinational and is finding its feet again.” And it is hard to imagine a network with more than 70 million users, 1.5 million active groups, and over eight billion photographs being dumped without trace, whatever the competition.
After five years The Commons appears to have succeeded in tearing down the “four walls” of the museum, bringing a wonderful range of once inaccessible material to previously unengaged audiences, and developing valuable data streams that are able to enhance the value of their collections.
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