For the Common Good: The Library of Congress

Some years ago, the Library of Congress (LOC) released a detailed report written in October by Michelle Springer, Beth Dulabahn, and Phil Michel on the results to date of the Flickr pilot. The verdict? The pilot has resoundingly exceeded expectations as well as silenced early criticism and fears.

To quantify this achievement, consider the following statistics from nine months of data:

  • There were 10.4 million views of the photos on Flickr.
  • 79% of the 4,615 photos have been made a “favorite” (that is, incorporated into personal Flickr collections of bookmarked images).
  • More than 15,000 Flickr members have chosen to make the Library of Congress a “contact,” creating a photostream of Library images viewable from their own Flickr home pages.

The Library’s full report chronicles the development of the pilot, including the challenges to the launch, photo selection and preparation, technical issues, and resources needed for the launch. The report also maps the goals of the pilot to the outcomes so far, such as increasing awareness of cultural heritage and educational resources, gaining a better understanding of social tagging and community input, and leading the way for other institutions to enter social media sharing.

The LOC reaches a new audience from participating in the Flickr Commons. Of the 10 million total views of photos in the LOC’s Flickr photostream by October 2008, 82% came from within Flickr while a mere 3% came from search-engine hits.

Not all results of the pilot were expected. The LOC’s blog reached “significant visibility” thanks to overwhelming coverage and linkbacks by blogs and online media outlets of the pilot’s launch on January 16, 2008. But also the major search-engine rankings resulted in high visibility for the LOC’s Flickr images.

The Library attributes the success of the pilot to altruism by Flickr members — people like to help — many acting upon the availability of impressive content “without known copyright restrictions”, satisfying a vast need in the Web 2.0 community to share and remix media.

The pilot not only ignites creative interaction with the LOC’s collection through tagging, commenting and annotating the LOC’s Flickr images, but it helps the LOC staff better understand how folksonomic tagging and community input could benefit the Library and its users. The LOC can become expert in the field of social media sharing on the Internet, allowing them to write the “cookbook” for other public institutions to be successful in baking their own Web 2.0 recipes.

The reports also dispel criticisms raised prior to the pilot’s launch. Critics posited that false memories and ungracious discourse might cloud understanding and research. There were fears of history being “dumbed down” or librarians becoming obsolete. However, public and media reception to the pilot praised the immediate access to these historical treasures as well as the participatory cataloging. Appendix A is filled with many examples of the spontaneous collaboration between members that occur on the LOC’s Flickr photostream, bridging the gap between a static viewing of the historical record and Web 2.0 social networking at its finest.