Review: Flickr Commons

Flickr Commons was launched in 2008 as a partnership between the photo-sharing social network Flickr and the Library of Congress. According to the Flickr Commons homepage, the project was created with two main objectives:

  1. To increase access to publicly-held photography collections, and
  2. To provide a way for the general public to contribute information and knowledge.

As a public historian, the goals of increasing access and sharing knowledge are near and dear to my heart. I decided to evaluate Flickr Commons project to see how well it meets these goals.

The volume, variety, and quality of images on the Commons is impressive. Since 2008, the Commons has expanded to feature collections from 84 cultural institutions all over the world, including the National Archives. The Commons is searchable across all institutions, allowing users to access content by topic rather than limiting them to  holdings in one particular organization.

The breadth of content is amazing, but even better is the information accompanying each image. Institutions can include the original title, provenance, rights information, the location in the archive, and a caption that provide a historical context. Flickr is a beautiful platform to display photographs and holdings right next to all of the relevant metadata.

Flickr Record

Flickr Commons offers an attractive interface for collections while still including all of the relevant metadata

But there is more to Flickr Commons than its good looks. As Bronwen Colquhoun points out in  “Making Sense of Historic Photographic Collections on Flickr The Commons”, the true beauty of Flickr lie in its interactivity. All of the images on Flickr Commons are in the public domain, and therefore, can be creatively reused and repurposed by the public. Flickr makes it easy to download images (in various sizes, bonus points) and to share images via social media.

Flickr Commons also offers its users several ways to interact with the photographs within the platform. Users can act as curators grouping images or creating themed galleries. Flickr also allows users to favorite images, and then these images are saved to a “favorites” album. Finally, users can actually share their knowledge, opinions, and interpretation in tags, comments, and notes.

As Colquhoun notes, there are several ways that cultural institutions have engaged with Flickr. My favorite case study was the “My LOC Favorites” contest held by the Library of Congress. As you might imagine, this contest challenged users to create a gallery of their favorite images from the LOC. An easy way to get users to engage with LOC’s content, it also produced amazing user-generated galleries.

N.Y. Playground

“N.Y. Playground”, Bain News Service, publisher. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

For instance, Flickr user BobMeade included this photograph in his gallery, My LOC Favorites. He included a comment explaining his decision, “Nostalgia. This photo reminds me of my childhood. My Dad made me a billy cart a bit like this. Billy cart is Australian for Box cart. It reminds me, too, of how I’m continuing a family tradition of home-made toys. Sometimes when my son asks me for something I build it for him.” In one brief comment, BobMeade connected an image from the LOC back to his personal history and and gave a new depth to the image.

For my final project, I created a a Flickr Commons set for the National Archives Office of the Historian on Center Market . The coolest part was that I could geotag the photographs with an exact location. This allows Flickr users to search for images by location or to view an image location on a map. This feature gives users some sense of the spatial history of Federal Triangle. In the weeks since the first photo was posted, it has been seen over 5,300 times! 9 people have added it to their favorites gallery.

Flickr Gallery

The National Archives Office of the Historian’s Flickr gallery of historic photographs of Center Market

Once the other photographs that I found and scanned are loaded into the National Archives Online Public Access database, I will add them to the Flickr set. Flickr Commons will not replace an institution’s own online collection, but it is a great addition to its online presence. Flickr Commons is easy to use, well-designed, and meets the scholarly needs of public historians; it combines the flexibility and innovation of a new media venture with the knowledge and standards of good collections management. I would love to see more cultural institutions involved in similar partnerships.




7 thoughts on “Review: Flickr Commons

  1. jbcapps says:

    What a great resource! I’m frequently torn on the issue of digital photo archives. Obviously, they read a broad audience and make my work easier. But don’t we lose something important by not entering the physical space of the archive?

  2. ep3973a says:

    I think flickr is an excellent resource as well. As someone who appreciates visual and material culture, I definitely appreciate the ability to see photographs in high resolution! Flickr is a great way for institutions to share their resources, but will all institutions see the value in this? Can new media specialists make a case for flickr as opposed to online website collections? Time will tell I suppose.

  3. drdankerr says:

    Fantastic review! I have a brother-in-law who worked for the House of Commons and early on decided that using Flickr was a much better alternative to building their own photo sharing platform. Your review certainly makes that decision seem more understandable.

  4. Gavin Frome says:

    Great job, that’s a very cool project. I hope that more image collections like this one will crop up over time, as they seem to be an excellent source for creative potential. Not to mention the excellent interpretive discussions they could facilitate, helping expand public interest in artistic studies.

  5. Wow, thanks for sharing such a cool resource! It’s awesome that the LOC was able to tap into the pre-existing success of flickr’s interactivity and geotagging capabilities for it’s public history mission. Did you run into any difficulties creating your set? Are you limited to what’s included in the Online Public Access database?

  6. Cool project! In your estimation, how do you think Flickr compares to other sites like HIstoryPin? On HistoryPin, you can upload high res. photos and mark their location, and you can show viewer the current google earth view. Would that work for this collection too?

  7. Julie Rogers says:

    Thanks everyone!
    Evan: Flickr definitely cannot replace online collections, but I think it is a great supplement!

    Joanna D.: NARA tries to make sure that all images shared via social media are available through OPA. This way people do not need to digitize records twice and it is certain that all of the relevant metadata will be attached to the online record.

    Joanna C.: There is definitely an argument to be made for physical archives. However, the Archives’ still pictures are organized into series by the originating government agency. Often the finding aids have very little information about what is actually included in the folder. I spent hours and hours going through boxes just to find about 30 pictures of Center Market. It was awesome to handle the original images and I had a great time. But now people will be able to easily access a gallery of these images all in one place! And hopefully when other researchers discover more pictures of the market, they will add the pictures to the gallery.

    Nicole: Flickr does have a geo-tagging feature, but it is not as spatially organized as HistoryPin. I think HistoryPin is a better tool to use for thematic tours.

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