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A Look Back at How the Library of Congress Has Reached Out to Citizens
by
Posted On April 18, 2023
This article originally appeared as the We the People column in the April 2023 issue of Information Today, titled “Library of Congress Reaches Out to Citizens.”

In 2008, I attended the Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The keynote address was given by John Dean, a figure in the Watergate scandal, but another presentation that week made a lasting impact on me: Helena Zinkham from the Library of Congress showcased how the library was working with Flickr to display a large collection from its photo archives. In the past, users were allowed to see these pictures but not comment on them, due to well-known concerns about free speech on the internet gone wild.

Zinkham said that there was considerable debate among her colleagues about opening the floodgates of commentary to the general public. They knew that they would have to monitor the comments for frivolous or insulting remarks, but this was balanced against the good of getting citizens more involved in the library’s work. In the end, they decided to do it, and the results were surprising. The initial offering had been a selection of shots from small towns in America. The information they had was often no more than the name of the town. As comments were approved, they found that they were a total success—people who had grown up in that town would add details about who lived in those houses or managed that pharmacy. There were occasionally remarks that had to be removed, but the balance of the operation weighed heavily in the direction of a win for greater access by the public.

In my half-century career working in libraries, I had used the services of the Library of Congress countless times—often dealing with records for new books as its work was passed along to other institutions through its partnership with OCLC. I had attended workshops that the Library of Congress produced in Washington, D.C. At this 2008 conference, I realized that something important was happening: The Library of Congress was using the internet to reach out to citizens and creating a bigger tent to share resources.

A COLLABORATION BEGINS

A report written later in 2008 by Zinkham and others—“For the Common Good: The Library of Congress Flickr Pilot Project”—described the yearlong preparation of the project. After a brief search, they chose Flickr as their partner. In the discussions about licensing, the two sides developed the “No known copyright restrictions” licensing statement, and this led to the creation of the Flickr Commons, an online harbor for major institutions to share their resources. Soon after its launch, other organizations came on board. Early adopters included the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Museum. Now there are more than 100 participating institutions, including the national libraries of Ireland and Norway, NASA, the George Eastman House, and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives.

The launch week in 2008 was notable for appeals to the public to help the Flickr Commons. The report authors feel that the phrase used to announce the launch, “This is for the good of humanity, dude!!” struck exactly the right note to inspire the altruistic capabilities lurking in the internet. The lines between the world’s largest library and the citizens they serve began to blur. For the initial response from the public, the Library of Congress personnel did not use the term explosive, but here are the numbers they provided:

  • In the first 10 months, there were 10.4 million views of the photos on Flickr.
  • 79% of the 4,615 photos had been made a “favorite.”
  • More than 15,000 Flickr members opted to make the Library of Congress a contact.
  • There were 7,166 comments left on 2,873 photos by 2,562 unique Flickr accounts.
  • There were 67,176 tags added by 2,518 unique Flickr accounts.
  • Nearly all of the 4,615 photos had at least one community-provided tag.
  • Fewer than 25 comments needed deletion.

Four years later, I interviewed Zinkham and fellow project member Michelle Springer for my book, Google This! Putting Google and Other Social Media Sites to Work for Your Library. They said the library was only spending about 20 minutes a day examining problem comments. At that time, the only bad thing about the Flickr project was a decline in images sold by the library itself.

ADDING A NEW, INFORMAL PROJECT

For years, my interest in genealogy had me tracking information about five Civil War veterans who were direct ancestors of mine. One day, a collection of Civil War portraits in Flickr provided by the Library of Congress caught my eye. These were photographs of soldiers and the women and children who had been left behind. It was the Liljenquist Family collection, donated to the Library of Congress in 2010 and apparently scanned around 2012. Most of the photos were slightly tinted, but I thought that many of them came out dark and could use a bit of tweaking in a graphics program. I began to choose photographs one by one and work on color and contrast to help bring them more to life. After all, one of those shots of an unidentified Confederate soldier might have been my great-grandfather. In each case, I linked back to the original Flickr entry, which had the full details.

To say the least, these images found an audience. All of my tweaked images were seen hundreds of times, with the more popular entries showing more than 2,000 views. At one ALA conference, I visited the Library of Congress booth and explained to the representatives what I was doing. I was told that my project was perfectly fine as long as I gave the library credit.

THE VETERANS HISTORY PROJECT

Another way the Library of Congress is involving the public is through the Veterans History Project. It was established by Congress in 2000 to record oral histories from service personnel and expanded in 2016 to include oral histories from family members of service personnel who were killed in combat.

I spoke to representatives from the Library of Congress at a later ALA conference because I had hoped to offer the project the collection of slides created by my late father at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in the late 1950s. But they were more interested in oral histories—not an option in this case. The Veterans History Project is active in a number of ways, including by hosting public programs in Washington, D.C., for veterans. It has also published books that present material gathered in the project, including Voices of War: Stories of Service From the Home Front and the Front Lines.

CONCLUSION

The Library of Congress stands as a sterling example of how an enterprise can adapt to the digital age and use its platform to make people more aware of its services. The tentative beginnings in 2008 have clearly blossomed into a major online resource for all citizens. The library that began with Thomas Jefferson’s book collection would have surely made its founder proud.

The book cover of Voices of War: Stories of Service From the Home Front and the Front Lines, one of the outputs from the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project (left) and Terry Ballard’s Flickr album of Civil War images from the Library of Congress (right)

link to Voices of Warguides.loc.gov/voices-of-war

link to Terry Ballard’s Flicker album: flickr.com/photos/terryballard/albums/72157645452378177

A comparison between an original Civil War photo (left) and the photo after Terry Ballard tweaked it (right)


Terry Ballard is a former systems librarian, retired after a 50-year library career. He is the author of three books and more than 100 articles, mostly about library automation. Further information can be found at terryballard.org, and he can be reached at terryballard@gmail.com.

Email Terry Ballard

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