Flickr Commons: A great idea, but…

Let me make this clear right off the bat: I think the idea of Flickr and the U.S. Library of Congress collaborating on a project to display historical photos is a fantastic idea. As described by Read/Write Web and by the Library itself (and by Flickr), it involves thousands of old pictures that are free from copyright being made available through Flickr. Great idea. The more people who get to see images from their cultural history, the better.

The other aspect of the project — the part where the Library of Congress asks people to add tags to the photos to help classify them — I’m not so crazy about. Don’t get me wrong, I think “crowdsourcing” of information can be a very powerful thing, since it lets companies make use of expertise that may be located in hard-to-reach or undiscovered places. And if the Library and Flickr were specifically asking old people or photographers to tag the photos, I would be a lot more interested.

The problem with letting anyone tag a photo is that their ability to do so properly is completely unknown. To take one example from the Flickr page, there’s a shot of a guy wearing old automobile goggles, behind the wheel of an old car — and people have tagged it “goggles,” “wheel” and “man.” So far, so good. However, the photo is identified as “Burman,” and someone has tagged it “burnam.” That’s not only unhelpful, it’s wrong. Is someone going to go through and check all the tags?

It’s possible that only people with a real interest in old photos will be bothered to cruise the Library collections and tag them, in which case this might be a self-regulating problem. I hope so. As you can see if you read the comments here — some from people whose opinions I respect — they seem to think I’m off-base, and that the data collected from those user-submitted tags will be worthwhile from a number of perspectives. But it seems I’m not the only one wondering about its utility.


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