Library of Congress finds a two-way street on Flickr

Posting historical photos leads to new contributions from the public

Agency: Library of Congress

Project: Library of Congress photostream


Technology: Flickr

Photographs are among the most compelling connections to the past, offering the viewer a glimpse of another time and place. As the national repository for documents and photographs, the Library of Congress decided to create a Web site on which people could check out some of its millions of archived photographs.

The library launched its Flickr site in 2008 with 3,100 photographs selected from its two most popular color collections, which depict the Depression and World War II. LOC chose color photographs because they would attract more people, said Helena Zinkham, acting chief of LOC’s print and photographs division. The site has grown to include about 9,000 photos.

Since the launch of LOC's site on Flickr, the library has added a second collection of 40,000 news photographs from the Bain Collection. Many of the photos in the collection are a century old and consist of minimally captioned news photographs. Zinkham said the originals were mostly shot on glass plates, with names and details scratched onto the plates.

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Zinkham said the library had three reasons for using Flickr. The first was to broaden public awareness of the library’s photo collections. Second, the library wanted to add to its collections and knowledge of the photos. She said people have contributed additional photographs to the collections and additional information about some of the existing images. The third reason was that the library officials felt that Flickr provided a good way for the organization to participate in social media, she said.

Library of Congress photostream on Flickr

Michelle Springer, LOC’s project manager of digital initiatives, said social media provides a platform to engage the public and ask for help in describing some photographs. This input provides the library with additional information about the photographs, which enriches the catalog. Visitors have updated 1,700 records using the Flickr Commons Community as a source. She said social media provides a two-way conversation between the library and public. Since its launch in 2008, the site has had more than 25 million visitors and averages more than 700,000 views per month.

Even with a site as open as Flickr, there still was a learning curve for LOC. Library officials thought that they could just open a Flickr account, but a government agency cannot simply sign a terms-of-service agreement, Springer said. At the time, Flickr did not have an appropriate rights statement for photographs and had to draft a new one tailored to LOC's needs. Perhaps most importantly, however, Flickr worked with the library to create a new space where public commons data could be loaded.

The Commons ( now hosts material from more than 40 libraries and museums. Springer said an important part of the Commons is that the material is completely public, with no copyright restrictions on publication. The library’s Flickr site continues to grow, with the addition of about 50 old news photos per week. Zinkham notes that new sets are constantly being added to the mix.


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