Artifact: Playing Tag


Credit: Library of Congress

In January the Library of Congress posted 3,100 public-domain images on the commercial photo-sharing website Flickr. After 208 years of keeping the privilege for itself, the library is finally letting the rest of America in on the fun of categorizing its sprawling collection.

Historically, archivists have kept delicate photo prints locked away in temperature-controlled rooms, indexed under a few inadequate terms. (In the case of this photo: "surplus commodities," "food relief," and "United States—Arizona—Saint Johns.") The search system for images was little better than the index card file the man is rifling through in the snapshot. Even after the photos were scanned and digitized, researchers still had to page through hundreds of poorly labeled pictures.

Letting everyone generate tags means more people can find what they're looking for, and faster. After just one week online, the first tranche of photos generated millions of page views and thousands of comments and tags, ranging from "abandoned car" to "zeppelin."

Eventually anyone will be able to find this photo by searching "America at war," "poverty," "fruit," "pine boxes," "index cards," "1940s hats," and dozens of other terms, in any combination. The Library of Congress has made this slice of its 14-million-photo archive infinitely more valuable just by letting the public play with it.