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Poking around the photos the Library of Congress has posted at Flickr shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of social tagging.

For example, take this 1940 photo of two kids gathering potatoes in Maine. There are about 80 tags, ranging from potato, maine, and boys to rural, bucolic, plaid, browen, and pommes de terre. The comments include people appreciating the aesthetics of the photo, recollecting their own lives on farms, and nattering on gaily about the cute hats the kids are wearing. For example:

I grew up in southern Minnesota in the 50s. I was probably 5-6 yrs. old. In the fall after the potato fields had been harvested, they allowed people to come in and collect the potatoes that the machines had missed. I can still remember the cold cloudy day, playing with my brothers in the furrows of the field, throwing clods of dirt at each other, instead of picking up potatoes, and getting yelled at by my Mom.


this ‘human interest’ is really ‘awesome’ during the world war ll eras, you can survive eating potatoes in the whole year, wthout rice. potato a native of pacific slopes of s. america, in 16th c., with roundish or oval starch containing tubers used for food. batata or sweet potato, is widely known in the philippine island, brought to table and used for food. biggest plantation of potato in the philippines is in northern luzon.

Three people have played with Flickr’s feature that lets you draw a box around a portion of a photo and add an annotation. All three are wastes o’ time (obviously in my opinion): “I love these barrels” is not worth the visual interruption. (You only see the boxes if you move your mouse over the photos.) So maybe Flickr will turn these off for the LC photos. Maybe not. We’ll see.

Nevertheless, this is some very cool stuff. Sure, some of the tags are oddball. So what? In the great wash of tags, they will lose significance. Meanwhile, that photo of two children harvesting potatoes, which had been locked away behind brick and paper walls, now is in the world, gathering meaning, memories, and connections.

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4 Responses to “Early tagging at Flickr + Library of Congress”

  1. on 30 Jan 2008 at 12:57 pmJosh Glenn

    David, I ran a short item in the Boston Globe last Sunday about this Flickr/LoC project. The item was illustrated with a mystery photo from the collection — labelled “Street in Industrial Massachusetts Town.” I’ve received a few dozen really terrific responses, from older Globe readers who know nothing about Flickr but were able to positively identify the street as downtown Brockton, circa 1941. So there’s a funny dynamic at work, here: Flickr is the a great tool for this sort of crowdsourcing project, but when it comes to identifying vintage photos, Flickr isn’t going to reach the proper (older) audience. Good old daily newspaper fills the void, makes the connection. What to do with this fact? I’m scratching my head.

  2. on 30 Jan 2008 at 1:01 pmDavid Weinberger

    Josh, I saw your piece on Sunday. Very nice.

    If there’s a lesson to learn, maybe it’s: Go where the people are. A bunch are at Flickr. A bunch are clustered around the hearth reading the Sunday Globe.

    Or maybe it’s: Messiness works. Put the photo as many places as you can and pray for links.

    Or maybe it’s: Everything works.

  3. on 08 Feb 2008 at 3:31 pmKris


    Thanks for the interesting post!

    Although some tags may be irrelevant, or silly, we cannot loose sight of the importance of the LOC sharing these photos in this manner. It is in stark contrast to the usual protectionist stance of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) federal rules and regulations.

    More of this will come. For example, The JFK Library in Boston is currently going through a massive digital archiving process, and will soon (hopefully) allow similar uses of historical documents.

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