Saturday, January 19, 2008

Library of Congress (LOC) photos on Flickr (or, "Will Community Tagging work?")

Hmm.. a pretty significant development in my opinion. For several reasons, as I shall explain.

The Library of Congress recently launched a pilot project with Flickr (owned by Yahoo!) called The Commons:
Flickr: The Commons - Library of Congress photos

From its landing page:
The key goals of this pilot project are to firstly give you a taste of the hidden treasures in the huge Library of Congress collection, and secondly to show how your input of a tag or two can make the collection even richer.

You're invited to help describe photographs in the Library of Congress' collection on Flickr, by adding tags or leaving comments.*

Stretching the Copyright restriction
If you scroll down the page, you see this part about Copyright (my emphasis in bold):
"These beautiful, historic pictures from the Library represent materials for which the Library is not the intellectual property owner. Flickr is working with the Library of Congress to provide an appropriate statement for these materials. It's called "no known copyright restrictions."
Flickr: The Commons

I can only guess at why LOC is creating a new copyright category.

The LOC collections contain published and unpublished works. So rather than adopt a strict "We Can't Share This Because We're Not The Copyright Owner" position, they've adopted a more rational (gutsy?!) one where "We Will Share This Even If We Don't Own It, If We Have Good Reasons To Believe There Are No Copyright Restrictions".

That's my guess anyway.

It's significant to me because here's a library (a very well-respected one) taking a calculated risk to make some of its resources available as public good.

It could have easily adopted a conservative position and not do anything since the copyright issue may not be 100% clear.

They've made available about 3,000 images out of the 14 million prints, photographs and other visual materials at the LOC. And only those "which no copyright restrictions are known to exist".

Spirit of Experimentation
More information from the LOC Blog (yes, they have a blog and an informative one at that):
"... the project will help address at least two major challenges: how to ensure better and better access to our collections, and how to ensure that we have the best possible information about those collections for the benefit of researchers and posterity.

... The project is beginning somewhat modestly, but we hope to learn a lot from it.

We want people to tag, comment and make notes on the images, just like any other Flickr photo, which will benefit not only the community but also the collections themselves.

From the Library’s perspective, this pilot project is a statement about the power of the Web and user communities to help people better acquire information, knowledge and—most importantly—wisdom. One of our goals, frankly, is to learn as much as we can about that power simply through the process of making constructive use of it."

What comes across strongly is the willingness of LOC to experiment and learn from the project.

It's an important attitude to adopt if libraries want to tap onto the social networking phenomenon.

It's easy to know how to use a tool (like Flickr). And it's easy to observe, at the surface level, the way people contribute and socialise in that medium. But what's harder is understanding how libraries can successfully tap on those networks and user behaviours.

Research is scarce in this respect, and whatever has been done seems to generalise at best. So innovative and forward-looking libraries will be the ones who invest in their own experimenting and learning.

Will Community Tagging work?
As for whether Community Tagging would work, there's no successful model as far as I know.

I'm reminded of what Isaak shared this via the Librarians-In-Singapore group -- a blog post from John Blyberg. At the 5th para, John writes:
I’ll even turn the tables on myself and admit that I was wrong about local tagging in the OPAC. SOPAC was by-and-large a success, but its use of user-contributed tags is a failure.

John further explains, in response to a comment, why it's a failure. In brief, apart from the initial enthusiasm in community tagging (from one or two users) the "tags have not grown large enough to become meaningful".

Lack of Critical Mass of community tags
I also remember speaking to a librarian from Taiwan, at a conference in Singapore two years ago. She shared how they tried to involve baseball fans in tagging their images relating to Baseball. It didn't work from their perspective.

We didn't really discuss in details about what didn't work. My guess is that while their users contributed to the tags, there was perhaps a mismatch between the expected "quality" of the tags.

Maybe from the library's perspective, they were used to a more detailed description of materials (i.e. comprehensiveness), whereas users might only choose to focus on descriptors that was important to them only (i.e. individual importance).

Or it could be the same issue as what John described for his library's project.

User Education
Seems like user education is also needed.

Tell them they are actually encouraged to tag other people's photos. And that they are also part of making it work. Most of us are brought up to subconsciously think, "This isn't mine, so don't touch".

Also, tell them not to feel embarrassed or angry if their contributions are subsequently modified or even deleted. It's the nature of social collaborative platforms.

Give it time
If the lack of a critical mass of user-contributed tags is the main issue, then I think LOC's project might just work, because the number of people who potentially would actively contribute LOC's collections is more than the user base for John's library or the librarian from Taiwan.

So if costs can be kept at acceptable levels, I think LOC's project success is a matter of giving it enough time and publicity.


UPDATE: I made my first contribution by leaving a comment for this image. I suggested they include a link to the photographer's bio at the LOC American Memory page.
Landscape, Northeast Utah (LOC) on Flickr - Photo Sharing!
Just realised that the LOC -- or any library that makes community contribution globally inclusive -- benefits from community tagging by contributors from different cultural perspectives : )


  1. Hi,
    We have a project similar to the LoC pilot project, called “PhotosNormandie”, which is alive since one year about:
    For now, descriptions are in French language and we are trying to improve them. So, we invite comments to get better localisations, better identifications, check and verify information, etc.
    A main difference between the two projects is the following: we are using IPTC metadata that are embedded in our hi-res photos, but LoC does not use IPTC and their descriptions and tags are attached to Flickr platform.
    With best regards
    Patrick Peccatte

  2. Thanks, Patrick! I've checked it out. Wow. What a resource for WWII Normandy images. The pictures makes some sense to me regardless of language. Maybe the tags could be publicly displayed and in English -- that would allow English-speakers what the photos are about.


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