On the web, history, like
everything else, is a participatory activity.
It’s not about visiting an online exhibit, it’s about engaging in an
ongoing conversation. What do you
see? Who is in this picture? Where and when was it taken? What is the story here? And what does it really mean?
Many photographs come to libraries, museums and archives
with limited information. Of course,
these institutions could enhance their collections by hiring professionals to
carefully research each image, but that’s an expensive solution, and some
information can’t be found in traditional sources. The Library of Congress is experimenting with a different
approach : crowdsourcing, or inviting participation from anyone interested. They have taken over three thousand
photographs for which they had minimal information, and posted them on the
popular photosharing site, Flickr, inviting members to comment freely, to help
organize the collection by adding tags, and to freely use these public domain
works. The results have been
impressive. Many of the pictures have
been viewed hundreds or even thousands of times, with lots of comments from the
crowd, often adding significantly to the identification and understanding of
For example, one photograph by
Jack Delano was originally identified just as “Street in industrial town in
Flickr members quickly provided an exact
location for the picture of Sylvia Sweet’s Tea Room, located at the corner of
Main and School Streets in Brockton, and narrowed the date based on the movie
poster in a window.
photograph shows the newspaper office, with headlines posted in the
Flickr members were able to decipher those news postings, do a little research,
and determine that the picture had to have been taken on December 24,
Some members add links to other
sources of information, often to the PDF version of New York Times articles,
available online free at the newspaper’s site from 1851 to 1922. For example, a photograph of a distinguished
group of men was originally just identified as “German Doctors at Ellis Isl. [between
1910 and 1915].” Flickr member Brooke Stewart posted the
information that the doctors were in New York to attend the 1912 Congress on
Hygiene and Demography, and added a link to a New York Times account of their
stay at the Plaza, with the headline “"German Doctors Try Turkey Trot; And One
of the Distinguished Visitors Is Now Mourning a Vanished Tooth."
The Library of Congress isn’t
the only library with historic photographs on Flickr. The Boston Public Library also has a Flickr
account with over six
thousand images, including over 1,800 beautiful Tichnor Brothers postcards of
Flickr members also participate
in history groups, sharing their own family photographs and other old
photographs, as well as current pictures of historic locations, endangered
buildings, artifacts of all kinds, and other sites and events that are or will
be of historic interest.
In one group, The
Great Postcard Hunt, Flickr
members take current pictures to match historic postcards, and digitally splice
the two images together. There are
other groups devoted to every period and aspect of history, from the Ancient
Near East to the Rock ‘n’ Roll
Historic Sites. You can find many of Flickr’s history groups
listed in the History Directory group.
Shorpy is another popular site
for the those who love historic photographs.
Calling itself “the 100-year-old photography blog that brings our
ancestors back, at least to the desktop,”
Shorpy posts a few selected images every day, often by noted documentary
photographers Lewis Hine, Jack Delano, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams and
others. The blog format works well for
this site, highlighting a steady stream of fascinating photographs to a devoted
community of users who follow the site regularly and participate in discussion
about the photographs. Some of the
Shorpy photographs get hundreds or even thousands of views.
Shorpy was named after Shorpy
Higginbotham, a child laboror in a mine in Alabama, photographed by Lewis Hine,
whose work is well-represented on this site.
A recently-posted Hine photograph is simply captioned, "Arthur Chalifoux, 3 Rand St. (4th boy from left). Works in
Eclipse Mills, No. Adams. Location: North Adams, Massachusetts, 1911."
Joe Manning posted more information on this photograph. As part of his Lewis Hine Project , Manning tracked down the grandson of
Arthur Chalifoux, who lived to be 92 years old. The family was unaware that this photograph existed, and had
never seen a boyhood photograph of Chalifoux.
Manning has researched the stories of many of Lewis Hine’s subjects, and
located the descendants of many of them.
are also many people who are combining history with geography, and putting
their historic images on interactive maps.
For example, the Waymarking site has a group called Historic Markers of
Massachusetts . Each marker is geocoded to put it on the
map, photographed, transcribed and described, creating a unique and useful
guide to historic sites in the state.
LuciaM, Master Guide, created a Google Earth file called Phillis Wheatley: Slave, Poet, American which
provides an interactive tour of places of significance in Wheatley’s life and
work, combining geographical and biographical information and literary works
into an engaging presentation.
Schools and other educational
and cultural organizations are also producing and sharing all sorts of history
material on the web. “Our Neighborhood:
South Worcester” is a short
film produced as a a collaboration of WCCA TV 13, the South Worcester
Neighborhood Center, and the Worcester Public Schools, and follows the
activities of a group of students from the Canterbury Street School as they
explore the culture and history of their neighborhood. This film was contributed to the Open Source
Movies collection of the Internet Archive for preservation and distribution.
We’re living through a period
of great social, political and economic change. But as we move forward, many of us feel a deep need to look back
at our personal and collective histories to see we’ve been, and understand
where we’re going. Network technology
provides individuals and groups ways to share and collaborate on a scale we
could hardly have imagined twenty years ago, and will continue to change the
way we study and explore history.