Zak Mensah on Wednesday 27 May 2009 Tweet this!
In the 16 months since Flickr launched The Commons, the photo sharing site's partnership with publicly-held photography collections has seen close to 30 institutions signing up.
Jack Delano's photo of Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Lyman, Polish tobacco farmers near Windsor Locks, Connecticut (LOC)
Initially a pilot project with the Library of Congress, The Commons now hosts thousands of images with 'no known copyright restrictions' from a wide variety of international collections. The most recent additions are small selections from the Getty Research Institute and the National Library of Wales.
There are two main aims of the project. Firstly, to increase awareness of and access to photographs held in public collections around the world. And secondly, to encourage people to share their knowledge and contribute their own information about the photos (via comments, notes and tags), thus enriching the collections' own catalogues.
Another benefit these collections provide is an excellent source of images that can be used free of charge for any purpose.
Last week the Library of Congress uploaded a selection of photos documenting life in America during the Great Depression and World War II. Included among the 10 most frequently requested photos from the FSA/OWI Collection (Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information) is Dorothea Lange's famous 'Migrant Mother' portrait of Florence Thompson and her children from 1936:
Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' - Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (LOC).
While nearly half the institutions represented in The Commons are from the US, France's Bibliothèque de Toulouse, the Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, Portugal's Biblioteca de Arte da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian and the Australian War Memorial are among those helping ensure an international balance.
Last time we reported on The Commons, no UK collections were involved. In August last year the National Media Museum appropriately became the first and has since been joined by the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland, and the aforementioned National Library of Wales.
If reports from Sydney's Powerhouse Museum are anything to go by, these museums and galleries should be seeing a large increase in access to their images - according to Seb Chan, the Powerhouse Museum's Web Services Manager:
"In the first 4 weeks of the Commons we had more views of the photos than the same photos in the entirety of last year on our own website. It wasn't as if we made the images on our own website all that hard to find - they were well indexed on our own site by Google, they were made available to the national federated image search/repository Picture Australia, and they also existed in our OPAC. Still, that was no match for Flickr."
There is now a Flickr Commons group and indicommons - a blog set up to "broaden knowledge of The Commons among the public and civic institutions around the world and to increase participation by the public in the Commons."
As I write, Lange's celebrated photograph has been viewed over 10,000 times since it appeared on Flickr less than a week ago and nearly 1,000 Flickr members call it a 'favorite'. This is all great news if it means more people will be exploring the immense online collections of the Library of Congress, and even better news if some of the less well-known collections receive new visitors. However, I'm not sure many of the comments people have added beneath Migrant Mother do much to 'enrich' the collection... and as for the notes that appear when you move your mouse over the image...
Another way users can add potentially useful - or exceptionally trite - information is via tags (keywords). Given the number of visitors and comments, surprisingly few tags have been added to the Lange photograph so far, but words such as 'poverty' or 'despair' not used in the Library's own description certainly help make the image more findable to those searching by theme or concept.
It would be interesting to find out what sort of impact The Commons is having on participating collections, and also to hear from people who have used any of the images.