Changing the subject

Who is this woman, and why is she crying?

Mrs. Belmont at gunmen’s trial (LOC)

This photo, from a collection of early news photos housed at the Library of Congress, is part of an experiment that has that venerable institution dipping a toe into the Web 2.0 waters. Compare the photo on LC’s own website, versus on Flickr.

By publishing some of its holdings into Flickr, where items can be annotated by anyone, LC is taking seriously what you often hear now but rarely see yet: in a digital environment, libraries have to move beyond providing access and into facilitating use.

Access has been traditionally provided by libraries by the application of pre-determined, hierarchical subjects; that’s what allows physical objects to be sorted and found. It’s a system that puts the onus on one cataloger to master a relatively fixed universe of related subjects, and apply this system to an object so said object can be placed and later found in its correct place.

On the web, of course, objects are easily replicated, dispersed, recontextualized. They can be represented in any number of places, found through any number of pathways and connections. They travel unpredictably across an increasingly read-write landscape, wherein someone just might improve and embellish the guess of that lonely cataloger about what an object is ‘about,’ making it thereby more discoverable. Accommodation to an endless amount of comment and annotation seems a nascent effect of the dynamically networked use of objects.

But back to the photo: how has being Flick’d out of LC’s precincts improved our sense of its subject? Somebody had scrawled a title, “Mrs. Belmont at gunmen’s trial,” and the LC record left it at that. Just a few days after it appeared in Web 2.0-land, commenters had connected the photo to a Wikipedia entry about Alva Erskine Belmont –a rather remarkable socialite and promoter of the women’s suffrage movement–as well as another photo in the same LC collection documenting the sensational Rosenthal murder of 1912.

Wikipedia, blog postings, tags, and comments are bringing this photo to life on Flickr, giving us a better sense of its context and content. But lest we get carried away with the wisdom of crowds, we should also acknowledge a misogynistic annotation on the photo in Flickr: “dr_ass2001” has taken up himself to draw a square around Ms. Belmont’s head and write, “Stop crying, you moron.”


So will LC be modifying its records based on the annotations these digitized photos catch in Flickr? Their FAQs about the project demure:

The Library will decide what to do with data added through Flickr once the pilot is over. Because resources to update catalog records are limited, the Library cannot promise to incorporate contributed data into its own records.

Still, on Flickr pages such as that housing Ms. Belmont, an LC librarian has promised to alter records based on contributed information; and as of this writing, a search for ‘flickr’ in LC’s Prints and Photographs online catalog calls up 127 instances of metadata being added or altered as a result of the “Flickr community project, 2008.”

So what are the criteria for bringing information contributed through this “community project” into LC’s more authoritative catalog? How much time and effort are LC librarians putting into that crosswalk? It will be interesting to learn answers. As a member of RLG Programs observed three months into this experiment:

Social tagging in this framework doesn’t mean letting others catalog your collections for you – it really means offering up materials for a conversation which you have to follow closely to extract the bits worth bringing back.

“Conversation” seems to be the operative word here — but until LC makes its activities in this experiment a little more transparent, it’s rather like a conversation held in a confessional booth. In any event, the move towards opening up cataloging into a conversation with the public over the web is certainly a paradigm shift. Web 2.0 endeavors like LibraryThing have for years now facilitated the interplay of LC Subject Headings and free-form annotation. But now here’s LC itself, the very mortar of brick and mortar libraries, striking up conversation.


This has implications that range into epistemology. A recent article by David Pimentel traces the implications of treating knowledge-making as conversational: “the nature of knowledge is increasingly viewed as an iterative process, with each individual attempting to make sense of the world s/he encounters.” We live in a world increasingly impatient with indexing done by professionals, “inevitably limited to one individual’s perceptions of an information object at one particular moment in time.”

A conversational world, growing out of Gordon Pask‘s Conversation Theory, Pimentel reminds us, is one of “participants communicating and seeking a shared agreement, or mutual understanding.” What is correct is formulated by participants in this communication, not some “external absolute.”

As Pimentel suggests in passing, an iterative and unfixed arena of exchange is of increasing importance in an world so often formulated as heterogeneous or interdisciplinary–the only way, perhaps, to “unif[y] theories and concepts across disciplines.” To be sure, most any uncontrolled conversation contains trivial or inane or erroneous noise, and crowd-tagging experiments seem especially full of that. It may be the price to pay for being able to talk at all in an environment that is still often known for the big stern Shushhhhh.

A post on Flickr that accompanied the launch of this LC experiment last January was cheerfully titled “Many hands make light work.” I doubt the LC librarians trolling the comments on the two photo collections so far released onto Flickr would agree–but assuredly, many hands make different work, and perhaps more interesting work all around.

Librarians get to come into a closer and more collaborative relationship with users of the objects they collect. Those ‘users’ (or patrons?) are able to participate in the detective work that is so often at the heart of subject identification, perhaps gaining a stake in culture as a result. The collection gets marked with new pathways through it, becoming less of a sterile pile and more of an ongoing seeding of discourse.


The very first aim of the pilot though, as outlined in the “Many hands” post, has less to do with rethinking cataloging or conversational theory or anything like that, and more to do with publicity: “to increase exposure to the amazing content currently held in the public collections of civic institutions around the world.” Indeed, if you look through the LC collection on Flickr, a goodly number of comments are, shall we say, merely appreciative:

Comments on an LC photo in Flickr

Like so much else about this pilot, this mere enthusiasm expressed for objects that have been online for many years –as if they have just now been made accessible–is striking. If LC had simply switched on annotation tools on their own site, I doubt that so much enthusiasm and activity would have arisen around these photographs.

The trick seems to have been to bring these objects to Flickr, a “major gravitational hub” that is “driven by network effects,” to borrow terms from Lorcan Dempsey. The willingness of LC , no slouch itself when it comes to gravitational hubs, to open up a dialog with a very different kind of hub, is heartening — less for the new exposure it can bring to the vast collections of august institutions (though that’s always valuable) than for the dynamic friction that is bound to arise from the commingling of authority and the crowd.

Though the immediate impulse is to breathe a vast sigh of relief that Mrs. Belmont has been released from the gloomy dungeon of LC’s sterile, unchanging gallery and is now facing a new public on Flickr, I suspect the ultimate value of such liberation will be renewed appreciation for the thin skein of metadata so laboriously pieced together by specialists over the years that can now be embroidered, tested, interrogated. From what little I now know of Alva, I think she would value the old standards, even while pushing for new ways of living.

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