The Library of Congress has long been one of the best online sources for historic photos. Their collection of the Historic American Buildings Survey, in particular, has always been a favorite of mine because it holds so many historic photos of the Carson City and Virginia City areas. But their excellent collections have always been hidden behind a clunky web interface that made searching, finding, and sharing the photos very difficult. And with permalinks that expire after a certain amount of time (permalinks like http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hh:1:./temp/~ammem_8T4Z::), browsing their site can be a real pain, even if the content makes it worth it.
But now someone at the Library of Congress is actually doing a fair job of keeping up with the times on the web. Not only do they have a blog, just yesterday they had this post outlining a new partnership they’ve entered into with Flickr. The Library has put up over 3,000 of their pictures on Flickr, photos from two of their collections: the George Grantham Bain Collection, and the FSA/OWI Color Photographs. They’ve put each of the collections into a set on Flickr (here and here). But the real power of the web that they’re trying to harness is the community features of Flickr. They’re asking the public to add tags and comments to each of the pictures, to collect the wisdom of the crowds surrounding these photographs. The idea is that the public knows more about these pictures, the subjects, the places they were taken, than the curators of the collection could ever hope to know. So if we set the public loose, tagging and commenting, it adds to the store of knowledge more than the Library could ever do on its own. Great idea, and kudos to the Library of Congress for going along with it.
And it seems to be working. A commenter matched up this photo of a train wreck, with this article from April 30, 1911 about a train full of teachers that derailed in Pennsylvania. Will this work for every photo? No. Could a researcher at a library or museum have made that connection? Probably. But it’s a sign that the experiment is working already.
It’s all part of a new project from Flickr called The Commons. The hope is that this trial period with these 3,000 pictures will be a success, and they’ll move forward to add more pictures, and from more sources than just the Library of Congress, in the future.
You can read all about on the Flickr blog, read the FAQ, or just jump in and look at the LOC’s pictures.