Citizen Archivists on Flickr

The National Archives’ photostream on Flickr has been a popular place for our users to view, comment, and discuss photos in our collection since June 2009.  We recently hit 2 million views on our photos on Flickr.  As we’ve seen the activity on our photostream grow (especially after joining the Flickr Commons in February 2010), we’ve noticed that some people dedicate a lot of time to tagging and commenting on these photos, ultimately contributing to how people understand each photo.  Flickr user TVL1970 has contributed over seven thousand tags to National Archives photos- what a feat!  Agreeing to take time out of his busy schedule, TVL1970 aka Tom, let us know a little bit more about why he tags and where he thinks the future of crowdsourced information is going.

TVL1970Why do you like Flickr? How long have you been using it?

I came to Flickr pretty casually.  I had just purchased my first DSLR camera about a year and a half ago, and I wanted a place where I could show my photos to family and friends that were spread across the country.  Flickr afforded me the ability to do so.

What brought you to the National Archives’ photostream?

I don’t remember specifically what brought me to the National Archives’ photostream, but I suspect it was either a sidebar item on my Flickr homepage, or simply seeing a National Archives image on The Commons homepage that caught my eye.

What motivates you to tag our photos so thoroughly?

Fear!  Well, I write that half-jokingly.  Everyone knows the cliche about a photo being “worth a thousand words,” but the cliche has a basis in fact.   My intention in placing a tag on a photo is to contribute at least a very small percentage of those “thousand” words.  A tag on a photograph provides the opportunity to connect a photo (especially the people, places and experiences it captures) to the past and the future.  When I write “fear” I do so in the sense that I fear the significance of many photographs is in danger of being lost as time marches on.  Providing a tag, to me, is a means of historical preservation.  Tags may not have an immediate impact, but I feel that in the digital age they are tangible signposts for those who might seek answers in these photos in the future.

There is also a sense of accomplishment in sleuthing out a seemingly generic photo, rediscovering its value, and then making that value known through tags and supplemental comments.

What is your favorite NARA photo on Flickr?

Not to cop out, but I wouldn’t so much say I have a favorite photo, as much as a favorite collection.  For me, it would be the Documerica photographs by Arthur Tress of the New York Harbor area, especially those of Queens and Brooklyn from the early-1970s.  Much of my early childhood was spent at and around Kennedy Airport, as my father worked there for National Airlines.  When I first saw these photos, it was like seeing scenes from my childhood.  Some of my earliest memories are of my father taking my brother and I with him to the airport to pick up his paycheck.  Seeing abandoned and burnt out cars along the drive to JFK was a common sight.

Among the Shoreline Debris at the John F. Kennedy Airport Is This Abandoned Auto 05/1973

This photo here (Among the Shoreline Debris at the John F. Kennedy Airport Is This Abandoned Auto 05/1973) pretty much sums it up.  That is not to say my memories predominantly consist of these scenes of ecological neglect, but I fully appreciate how one image or series of images can trigger a flood of memories.

Why do you think tagging is important?

Expanding on my earlier comment about motivations for tagging, I think it is a way of ensuring history is not lost.  I mentioned the Tress photos before.  His photos strike a chord with me.  I know where those places are, I remembered what those places looked like then, and I have information that I can add to those photos that, without casting any dispersions upon the staff at the Archives, someone working at the Archives may not be able to add now or in the future.  I believe that is the great benefit of these collections being opened up for tagging and comments.  It holds the promise of more history being recorded than those who commissioned these photos and collections may have ever contemplated.

Where do you see social tagging moving toward in the future (what impact will it have for cultural institutions)?

I believe as search engines become more and more powerful it will have an enormous impact.  When I place a tag on a photo I try to consider what is here that someone may be looking for, from the historic to seemingly trivial. Not only what someone may seek on Flickr, but also on the search engines we are all familiar today and the even more comprehensive ones that will surely follow.  Combine chronological and textual tagging with geotagging, and the possibilities for utilizing these images becomes exciting.  Imagine standing somewhere placing your smartphone in front of you and having a window to the past as photos, images, and information are all overlaid upon your current view.  Rather than users going to a “brick and mortar” institution to explore the information therein, the institution and its information will instead be literally at every place its collections describe and capture.  I’m concerned that institutions that lack the resources (or vision) to digitize their collections will become irrelevant as more and more people use the internet to collect information.  Far worse than these institutions themselves falling into irrelevance is the very real possibility that the history contained within their collections will be ignored or forgotten altogether.

Are you a photographer yourself? What do you enjoy photographing?

“Photographer” would be a generous description!  My camera is a far better “photographer” than I am.  I just make sure the battery is charged and I press the button to open the shutter.  The camera does the rest.  Personally, I enjoy aviation photography.  Aviation photos have an aesthetic appeal to me.  Also, and perhaps this ties to the issue of tags, aircraft have been “tagged” for almost 100 years in the form of registration numbers.  An aircraft registration number can unlock a wealth of information.  One example I can point to in the National Archive’s collection is a photo of a Pan Am 747 at Kennedy Airport (At the John F. Kennedy Airport 05/1973).

At the John F. Kennedy Airport 05/1973

Read the comments and follow the tags and you will see that there is more than meets the eye in the original image.  Maybe someday someone will follow a tag to one of my photos and illustrate how there was more captured in that photo than I could have appreciated at the time.

What other hobbies do you enjoy?

Traveling would be at the top of my list.  I would travel almost anywhere if provided the opportunity.  As a sidebar, much of my interest in Flip Schulke’s photos of South Florida and the Florida Keys in the NARA collection (DOCUMERICA – Flip Schulke) was inspired by driving from Miami Beach to Key West over the Overseas Highway early last year.

Residents Take Part in Organized Daily Exercises in One of the Public Pools at Century Village Retirement Community.

Is there anything else about yourself that you’d like to share?
In my spare time I serve as a docent at an aviation museum here on Long Island.  It’s just as rewarding interacting with and learning from the other docents there (many of whom are now retired after working in the field for decades) as it is sharing the knowledge I have with those who come to visit.

7 thoughts on “Citizen Archivists on Flickr

  1. Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing your thoughts about tagging and your interest in photography. We really appreciate your contributions!

    – Jill
    Social Media Team Manager, National Archives

  2. Very interesting to read this interview! Tom was also kind enough to tag some of our aviation photos in The Commons, which is much appreciated.

    Yvette Hoitink
    Web team Nationaal Archief, the National Archives of the Netherlands

  3. Fascinating interview! Tom’s philosophical take on the potential history and personal significance captured in a photo is a good reminder to pause and consider the depth within. Kudos to his effort toward tagging the preservation of human stories!

  4. I really enjoyed reading Tom’s philosophy on tagging. Tags are an important and very helpful piece of metadata – thanks and keep up the good work!

  5. I do agree that the Documerica photographs by Arthur Tress of the New York Harbor area are pretty good, but my favorite is the Latin Girls in Brooklyn, 1974 by Danny Lyon. I dont know but it reminds me of my sister.

  6. Contributing not only a whopping 7000 tags, but also your perspective on the work of tagging, are all gifts to the Archives, and ultimately to the world. Thanks so much Tom. This is one of my favorite NARAtions blogposts.

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