Interview: Helena Zinkham, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Posted by Stephanie Fysh in Interviews, News

As part of the Indicommons marking of the first anniversary of The Commons, I interviewed Helena Zinkham, Acting Chief, Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, to learn more about how The Commons came to be a year ago.

Let’s start with a bit about you. What’s your job title, and what do you do when you’re not doing things for The Commons?

My work as Acting Chief for the Prints & Photographs Division at the Library of Congress is a lively mix of activities. With 40 very capable colleagues, I’m trying to make the 14 million pictures in our care as available and useful as possible. I’m a communication switchboard, project coordinator, cataloging teacher, and paperwork scrambler. For fun, I write about ways to read and research photos, and, of course, I enjoy interacting with the Flickr members tremendously.

Celebrating the Commons launch with cake

Celebrating the Commons launch!

After 30 years of working with old pictures, it feels like I’ve come happily full circle. From local historical societies in the 1970s, where we spent time poring over old photos with researchers, asking, “Could that be … ?” or “Do you see …?” then running to a crumbling city directory volume to check a street address. Now, it’s a vast virtual reading room where people all over the world can offer identifications and debate their ideas by tapping the new online info sources as well as their personal experience and expertise. Flickr Commons has a comfortably familiar feel while also expanding enormously the number of people who can participate. I’ve got tremendous respect for the Flickr members.

Most people on Flickr assume that Flickr came up with the idea for The Commons then called the Library of Congress with an invitation. What actually happened?

The Library of Congress initiated the contact with Flickr, but it was Flickr designer George Oates who had the brilliant idea to create a brand new community space — The Commons, where many cultural heritage organizations could offer photos. To be clear, LOC is far from the first library to participate in Flickr. We called Flickr up, though, because we wanted to load a fairly large quantity of images and invite lots of tags and comments to better identify the images. And we couldn’t do that with the available licenses for photos on Flickr.

Our relationship to the photos is that of a steward. Unlike photographers who load their own work to Flickr, we don’t own the copyright for images in our collections. We needed a new rights statement that became “No known copyright restrictions.” The rights conversation and other discussions over the summer of 2007 resulted in The Commons launch on January 16, 2008.

Yesterday, Indicommons posted an overview of the Library of Congress. The Commons doesn’t fall in any obvious way into the mandate of providing research services to the U.S. Congress. How does The Commons help the LOC fulfill its mandate?

The Library of Congress serves the U.S. Congress and all its constituents, which means we’re the national library of the United States. An inspiring vision guides our work: “We will foster a free and informed society by building, preserving and providing resources for human creativity, wisdom and achievement. We continually strive to place these resources at the fingertips of the American people, their elected representatives and the world for their mutual prosperity, enlightenment and inspiration.” Offering photos through Flickr is a good fit for our mission.

What was behind the choices for the photographs released for the launch last year?

Bain News Service, iWounded at Juarez/i, 1910-1915

Library of Congress

Top criteria — The collections had to be visually interesting. Also, “no known copyright restrictions.” The color photos from the Great Depression and World War II have long been popular with people who already come to the Library to enjoy images, so we were pretty sure they would be well received. The news photos from the 1910s were chosen because we flat out needed help to gather more information about the thousands of subjects accumulated by the Bain News Service. We didn’t anticipate how many dedicated and capable history detectives would participate, so that’s been a wonderful surprise. The latest collection, travel views from ca. 1900, has been heavily used at the Library’s website, but there, too, help was needed to untangle place names and spellings. By the way, all the collections in Flickr are available at the Library through the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. We continue to have the primary preservation responsibility for the digital images as well as the original photographs.

What’s your own favorite photograph or collection so far?

Women workers having lunch (LOC)

Library of Congress

Too many to name! I tipped my hand a bit with the 6 images that open and close the set called “1930s-40s in Color.” Mostly, I love pictures that make you look twice; that leave you wondering how life used to be and how it could be different today. Through Flickr, new favorites often come from the community’s funny, creative, and practical contributions. They’re showing me new sides of photos that I’ve been looking at for many years — Women workers having lunch, Display of home canned food, Louis & Lola ?– TITANIC survivors, Reunited with their mother. It’s great!

Any last thoughts?

I hope you’ll get to meet more of the team members at the LOC; several of us are in a webcast about the launch of the project, Opening the Photo Vaults. Although no one person works full time on the project, about 20 skilled and dedicated folks are involved with prepping the descriptions, loading the images, and responding to the comments. We’ve got lots of ideas about other ways to participate in Flickr, too. Like inviting Flickr members to meet up at the Library for a tour of the photo collections. But for now we’ll keep scrambling to keep up with all the good comments that pour in.

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One Response to “Interview: Helena Zinkham, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress”

  1. striatic Says:

    you can tell they take the Flickr Commons project pretty seriously because they celebrated it with cake!

    also, kudos to the LOC for approaching Flickr in the first place. i think the attention to detail in making sure they had the appropriate [non] license in place has really paid off.

    i also want to know what directions The Commons in general can go from here, as well as the role they’d like Indicommons.org and the rest of the Commons Community to play.

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