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Living History- Library of Congress

November 30, 2010

Mrs. Adolph Topperwein Ca. 1910-1915. From the George Grantham Bain Collection. From

Lets get started with a serious collection. The US Library of Congress is, of course, the official research library of the US Congress, the US national library, and the world’s largest library in terms of shelf space and books. Its classification and subject heading systems are used by thousands of libraries around the world. Though legislation approving its creation was ratified by President John Adams and its first acquisitions date to 1801,  this venerable institution has forayed into the realm of social media and 2.0 tools with digitized photo offerings on Flickr. Launched in 2008, LC’s Flickr account contains jazz age photos from William Gottlieb, photolithographs from the Photoglob and Detroit Publishing Companies, Bain News Service dailies from 1910-20, and much more.

Locating the Flickr page from LC’s home page is not necessarily straightforward. The primary pathway involves 4 steps (Library of Congress Home>>For Researchers>>Prints & Photographs Reading Room>>Flickr Project) Due to the large number of ongoing digitization and electronic access projects the library maintains, this relative obscurity would seem fitting, and a quick site search for users who are aware of its existence yields multiple links to the library’s photostream. I happened to discover the page via Flickr itself and I suspect this is the case for many Flickr users who may have searched for relevant content, seen a “favorited” photo, or encountered LC in someone’s contact list.

If you are familiar with Flickr, LC’s account is easy to use. Most photos have 15-20 tags ranging from specific (ie “James Mullen”) to general (ie “bald”) descriptors and taking into account search semantics (ie “United States Navy” and “US Navy”) and languages other than English where appropriate. Photos are organized by collection into sets, but a lack of subsets leads to imbalance: some sets have 16 photos, while others have 1600. Users with no previous Flickr experience will benefit from the site’s simple layout, searchability, and browsing functionality.

The Library of Congress offers a number of interactive online tools for its users. From virtual collection creation and teacher/student resources at to a print and photograph OPAC, LC is well equipped to serve tech-savvy and distance patrons. The Flickr page is set apart by its social media component, allowing registered users to comment on and contribute to its collection. Given the historical matter and frequent gaps in photo information, photo comments sections have tremendous potential to enrich the collection and create “living history” as users add their own knowledge, anecdotes and even re-creations.

Belt Railway, Chicago. Taken by Jack Delano January, 1943. From

Flickr user WC7638 comments on the above photo: “Railroad operator is misnamed. This is the Belt Railway Company of Chicago (BRC) Clearing Yard. To which The Library of Congress responds: “Thanks for the information. A second source confirmed the information, and we’ve updated the caption (4/7/08).”

A woman applies lipstick in Washington DC. Ca. 1943. From

In the above photo’s comment section, User brownpau has posted a link to his own photostream where he and his wife have imitated the shot. This kind of interaction with a collection through virtual means is an added value of social media tools. Indeed the Library of Congress’ Flickr page has evoked a strong reaction to this value: according to LC’s Information Bulletin for January/February 2009, the photostream had received more than 10 million views, 7000 comments, and 67,000 tags. Flickr users marked 79% of LC’s photos as favorites and The Commons, a Flickr/LC  partner project to increase access to photos in the public domain and allow public contribution to historical material, had attracted the attention of 16 international libraries, museums, and archives.

Though I have never set foot inside the physical Library of Congress and have no Reader Identification Card, the Flickr collection makes it easy for me to virtually patronize this truly great library. Indeed the photos I have browsed since I discovered this page last year constitute the majority of my interaction with this collection and as a user I would support any expansion of this project.

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