Hail to the Flickr Commons!

A fascinating partnership between the Library of Congress and Flickr has recently begun. In a pilot project started in January, the Library has placed 3,115 archival photos on Flickr, the photo-sharing website, and invited users to tag them and so make them more accessible. The Flickr Commons project as it is called, is also asking Flickr’s 23 million members to review the photos for any errors in labeling or identification.

Delano, Jack,, 1914-, photographer. Mike Evans, a welder, at the rip tracks at Proviso yard of the C & NW RR, Chicago, Ill. 1943 April, Library of Congress from Flickr

One batch of photos was taken by photographers working for Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information between 1939 and 1944. (It’s a real kick to see this era in color.) Another set are news photos from 1910 to 1912 that once belonged to the Bain News Service, now defunct. Because the photos are so old, and because some belong to the government, none has any known copyright restrictions. The Powerhouse Museum of Australia has also contributed some 7,900 glass-plate negatives from the turn of the century to the Flickr Commons.

The early results of creating the Flickr Commons have been phenomenal. Within 24 hours of their appearance, there had been 650,000 viewings of the images, and comments were added to more than 500 pictures. Some 4,000 unique tags were also added. The project is also encouraging in showing that government can provide useful leadership in tapping into the “collective intelligence” of citizens. (A FAQ about the project can be read here )

On the same day that the Flickr Commons was announced, a citizen who had pored through the Library of Congress’ online collection of Civil War photos discovered that several photos had been mislabeled. Three negatives were later confirmed to have been photos of Lincoln’s second Inauguration. Imagine if the same powers of “distributed intelligence” that the Flickr community possesses, were applied to a larger set of archival photos held by the Library of Congress? It’s an intoxicating thought.

There is an interesting precursor to the LoC experiment. A few years ago, NASA started the Clickworkers project, which invites ordinary people to review photos of the surface of Mars and help classify the craters. The project has engaged thousands of citizens in planetary research and saved NASA lots of money while delivering results that are as accurate as professional crater-classifiers.

There is one red flag that has been mentioned with respect to the Flickr Commons. Flickr is a private company that is owned by Yahoo, the company that has censored blogs in China. What if Flickr decided that it wanted to take the collective value created by its members — i.e., the tags, comments and public-domain photos — and told the Library of Congress to get lost? It would have every legal right to do so. The Library would still own its photos, but all that collective tagging would be privatized.

To be sure, Flickr brings a lot to the table in this partnership. It has a well-established online platform, great technology and a membership base of 23 million. As a citizen, however, I would feel much more secure if I knew that the value that we are collectively adding to our nation’s archival treasures — the tagging — belonged to a public repository, and not a privately owned one. Should public resources be used to help drive more traffic to a privately owned website?

Let me now argue in a seemingly contrary direction, about the commercial benefits of putting public-domain works online. There is a website called Shorpy.com that takes the best high-resolution vintage photos from the Library of Congress and other sources, touches them up, and then sells high-quality prints. Shorpy.com also curates the photos, which is a big improvement over browsing raw archives. I find such commercial uses of the public domain entirely praiseworthy. The market “adds value” in ways that it does best, and in ways that perhaps the commons cannot. More to the point, the public domain remains accessible and undiminished.

But in instances when the commons does add value, the way that it does through Flickr, it’s a shame that the results (the tagging and comments) legally remain in private hands, and not in the hands of the commoners. In practice, in this instance, the difference may be small if not inconsequential. But then again, legal ownership can potentially mean a lot. Open is not necessarily “free” (in the sense of freedom, not free of cost).