Flickr Commons: An Uncommon Resource

The World’s Public Photography Archives

In January 2008, Flickr: The Commons was created with the intention to create the world’s first public photo collection and interactive archive.  Users are able to browse the image collections of 46 participating institutions from around the world, including collections from notable American institutions: The Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Media Museum, The U.S. National Archives, and NASA on the Commons.

According to the website, the program has two main objectives:

1.“To increase access to publicly-held photography collections.”

The Flickr format enables institutions to share limited photographic collections (those with no known copyright restrictions) with the general public.  NASA, for example, which has been proudly “on the forefront within the federal government in utilizing Web 2.0 technologies” joined Flickr in 2009 to ensure that NASA images and media could reach an even wider audience.

2.“To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.”

The Commons encourages site visitors and users to add tags or comment on the photos to encourage conversation and invite insightful dialogue to complement and enrich the collections.   The comment feature allows knowledgeable users to share information, stories, and otherwise provide historical context.

What is good for the user is also good for the institution?

The Library of Congress Commons Project FAQ page explains how “social tagging and community input could benefit both the Library and the user.” In their initial collection offerings, the Library posted photos that had only minimal identifying information or subject indexing in the hope that users may help shed some light on these otherwise obscure images.  The Library of Congress, and other participating institutions, recognized the value of Flickr Commons’ social community and the potential to tap the “collective intelligence” of citizen users and recruit them to perform the task of “collective cataloging.”

This is not the first time an institution capitalized on “collective intelligence.” In 2001, NASA launched (pun intended) an experimental project that utilized public volunteers, called “clickworkers,” to perform “common sense” routine analysis and assist in the cataloging of Martian craters.  The project was highly successful and the public assistance saved NASA both time and money. So Flickr Commons wisely followed suit.  As noted in a Flickr blog, “many hands make light work.”

The Fruits of Crowd- Source Labor

An article in the March 2008 edition of the The Library of Congress Information Bulletin entitled “Rediscovering Lincoln” triumphantly announced that thanks to “collective intelligence” the Library of Congress was able to properly identify a photograph and, subsequently, three glass negatives of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration that had been wrongly identified as either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of Ulysses S. Grant.

In November, amateur historian and Civil War enthusiast John Richter found several interesting images among the treasure trove of photographs digitized and accessible on the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. He identified them as images of Lincoln at Gettysburg for the dedication of the Soldiers National Cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863. (The images can be viewed by searching “Lincoln at Gettysburg” on the Library’s Prints and Photographs Catalog and selecting the images of the dedication ceremony at Soldiers’ National Ceremony.)

The potential for amateur historians and historians alike to properly identity photos and uncover “new” visual sources is a truly exciting prospect.  For Flickr, and other crowd-sourced projects, the power is with the people.

5 Replies to “Flickr Commons: An Uncommon Resource”

  1. My first thought as I started reading this post was, "why can't organizations just post their own pictures on their own sites?" As I continued to read, however, I started to think about how helpful a site like Flickr may be to reach larger audiences that wouldn't necessarily go directly to an organization's website. There is certainly a lot to gain from the input of a worldwide audience, though I have to wonder how these organizations expect to get the traffic they desire on these sites. I mean, I've never just gone to Flickr to see what's on there unless another site directed me there.

    This leads me to my final thought. To what degree are these sites, like the Library of Congress' Flickr page, visited by people who are outside of the "traditional" scope of the LOC's audience? Along with this question is another: How can historians utilize and promote digital media projects in ways that bring in larger audiences outside of academia to be a part of our "collective intelligence"? We already talked a little in class about how traditional scholarship publishes articles and books that are hardly ever read other than in our own small circles, and it's been suggested that digital projects may help historians to break from these limitations. While historians of every make (amateur, independent, etc) may be excited to have closer and immediate access to the tools and resources of their profession, I have to wonder if any one else is excited.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Tracie. For content creators on the Web (as I am), sites like Flickr (especially Flickr commons) are a godsend. Easy access to content without copyright restrictions is incredibly important if you're on a budget (as I am) and I rely on this site frequently to get free images.

    On that note, as you might know, I am working on a NASA-related site for my Digital project in this class. I will be sure to peruse NASA's site on Flickr commons as a curate content for the site!

    1. I think you make a really good point, Ethan, about how beneficial it is to have content without copyright restrictions. I have often considered looking for pictures to include in articles, etc, though I often dismiss the idea because I worry about copyrights. Being that Flickr Commons posts pictures that are entirely free for use, I'm encouraged now to search through it when I'm writing some article that I think would benefit from a picture.

      Of course, since a picture is worth a thousand words, I wonder if that would count towards my word count.

  3. Thank you both for the interesting comments!
    As you mentioned, I think that Flickr benefits the user far more than the individual institutions that participate. Having access to a treasure trove of photos and not needing to worry about copyright restrictions (or at least "no known copyright restrictions) is a godsend to many.

    Ethan, NASA's site from my quick perusal seemed to be excellent source, I will be curious to know what you think of it as you delve deeper, and I look forward to seeing your finished project!

    And, Dennis, if pictures would count toward overall word count, Flickr commons would be the ideal one-stop-shop for our photo-centric dissertations! 😉

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