Chances are, if you spend any time online you've come across Flickr. Flickr is a wonderful site for storing, sharing and building community around photographs. It's similar to online photo services like Kodak Gallery or Shutterfly except with a greater social focus and tools and features reminiscent of Facebook. About a year ago Flickr launched the Flickr Commons, a project dedicated to sharing and describing the public photo collections of the world's leading cultural heritage institutions.
Starting this past January with The Library of Congress, and continuing with places such as The Smithsonian Institution, The Brooklyn Museum, The National Maritime Museum, The National Library of New Zealand, the Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands and numerous others, the Commons has grown steadily over the past year into a truly remarkable public photography resource. We are delighted to be the latest institution to join in this endeavor, with an initial contribution of 1,300 images culled from various areas of our diverse photographic collections.
We think of this as a sort of appetizer course, a sampler of collections accessible in greater breadth and depth on the NYPL Digital Gallery, and on-site in our network of libraries. Lush images of modern dance pioneers; haunting early cyanotypes of algae (the first photographic works to be produced by a woman); majestic geographical surveys taken along the Union Pacific Railroad, iconic Depression-era images taken under the Farm Security Administration's famed photography program; Berenice Abbott's epic documentation of 1930s New York for the Federal Art Project; stunning 19th century vistas of the Egypt and Syria; scenes and portraits of Ellis Island Immigrants, the Statue of Liberty under construction... These and more are now available to view, tag and discuss in the Flickr Commons, and are offered as an invitation to explore further on our own site or in our actual libraries. After this initial road test, we expect to post many more images into the Commons pool.
When Flickr launched the Commons this January with the LOC as pilot partner, photos were intentionally posted without descriptive tags (except for "Library of Congress"). LOC was curious to see what would happen when users were presented with a relatively blank slate. The response was overwhelming. In addition to thousands of comments, "favorites" (users bookmarking images in their personal accounts) and image annotations (notes appended directly to the surface of the digital images), tens of thousands of tags were posted, describing the images in myriad ways. Later, in the culmination of this first experimental phase, more than 500 LOC catalog records ended up being updated and enhanced with information provided by the Flickr community. This was incredibly inspiring to behold. Having studied the results of the LOC experiment, and the participation of subsequent Flickr partners, we decided to tweak the conditions slightly. NYPL librarians have already spent a ton of time describing these photos, particularly with subject headings that convey the contents of the images. Rather than discard this information, we've added a selection of these headers, repurposing them as tags, and posted them as a nucleus for Flickr viewers to build from. The hope is that this will stimulate rather than stifle activity on the Commons, with librarians and non-librarians collaborating on the description of this material. Judging by initial reactions (we went live last night and have been tracking since then), Flickr users seem unfazed by the presence of this seed data and are tagging and commenting vigorously. A couple of encouraging quotes:
"These are wonderful. It's great to see how libraries with valuable collections like this are making them available more widely through digitization. Thanks for the links to the NYPL Digital Gallery." »»
"Yes, they are so beautiful. Libraries really have a wealth of stuff waiting to be shown. Thank you New York Public Library! We love this!" »»
The next step is for our curators to jump into the fray to answer questions (and perhaps ask some too), and to sift through all the tags, comments and annotations. We expect to learn a lot from Flickr users and are thrilled at the exposure that this project will give to our photographic collections. We also see the Flickr Commons as a sort of training ground for our staff — a place to get some serious hands-on experience collaborating with users in a vibrant social Web community. Down the road, we expect to implement similar tools and features on our own site, say, for example, in the Digital Gallery. Stay tuned for further reports from our Flickr experiment. We're excited to see where this goes.