Library of Congress & Flickr: that should have been us

Some big news this week is a deal between the Library of Congress and Flickr in something they’re calling The Commons, “ The Library of Congress Pilot Project”. LoC says:

We are offering two sets of digitized photos: the 1,600 color images from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information and about 1,500 images from the George Grantham Bain News Service. Why these photos? They have long been popular with visitors to the Library; they have no known restrictions on publication or distribution, and they have high resolution scans. We look forward to learning what kinds of tags and comments these images inspire.

This is a great initiative on their behalf. As a public institution they should be applauded for seeking to make their collections more accessible and more useful. They are indeed a leading example for other cultural institutions to look to and hopefully take inspiration from.

It’s also a very smart move on Flickr’s behalf. It inspires warm fuzzy “public good” feelings, and let’s face it, Flickr does have the best interface for social image management, and tagging is awesome fun.

But when I read this announcement I had a bit of a feeling of being stopped in my tracks. Library of Congress and Flickr? Why wasn’t it Library of Congress & Wikimedia?

Wikimedia Commons users have long recognised the value of the LoC’s collections and there are literally thousands of their images hosted on Commons.

Sharp-eyed Lupo also reminded me of this piece in the Wikipedia Signpost, July 2006:

Wikimedia Foundation representatives met this week with officials from two major institutions regarding the issue of access to archival materials. The United States Library of Congress has expressed interest in including Wikipedia content as part of its archive collection, while also indicating that it could make a sizable amount of its own material available for use on Wikimedia projects. […]

Wikimedia interim executive director Brad Patrick, accompanied by Danny Wool, Kat Walsh, and Gregory Maxwell, met with representatives from the Library of Congress this week to discuss sharing information, sources, and media. The Library, one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, has offered access to nearly 40 terabytes (approximately 10 million items) of digital information. “That there would be a moment’s hesitation to cooperate fully with the Library of Congress is beyond my comprehension,” said Patrick. “I’m glad that we are moving in this direction.”

Indeed… so what happened in the last eighteen months?

Brad Patrick and Danny Wool have left as staff; Kat Walsh is now on the WMF Board (I’m not sure if she was then), and Danny and Greg are still active within Wikimedia even if not as much as they once were. So not all of the connections from that time have moved on. But whatever they were thinking might happen clearly didn’t happen.

It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to make this happen. More importantly, I hope we will be able to pull our shit together and not miss such opportunities in the future.

There are three aspects:

One is on the organisational side, in terms of positioning ourselves as the partner for these kinds of ventures, public-interest and smart in collectively managing huge media sets. I don’t know how we’re doing on that front. It looks like 18 months ago we weren’t so great at following through, but at lot can and I imagine has changed in those 18 months.

The second is the software side, where we are not the best prospect. Right now Flickr probably does have a better set-up. I can only repeat my request that WMF hire more software developers and put some priority on functionality relating to media-management. It may take a year or two of serious improvements before we provide anywhere near the kind of usability that Flickr does.

The third is the community side, in terms of do Wikimedians welcome these kind of ventures. And for once this is actually the easy part. For Wikimedia Commons I feel pretty confident in saying we would rejoice to receive this kind of news.

It is a bit of a kick up the proverbial.

18 January, 2008 • , , ,



Software not there:

Image support is a bit of the poor redheaded stepchild in MediaWiki, isn't it? Much of the nifty stuff around images (Mayflower, category tools, migrators, image usage checks, etc) has been done by wizards and tools coders, not built in to the base software. Schade.

Lar · 18. January 2008, 12:52


Indeed, it needs integrating — and then there’s the functionality which doesn’t even exist in JS yet.

What does “schade” mean?

pfctdayelise · 18. January 2008, 14:31


Fortunately, this particular deal isn’t much of a loss, since Commons can take all those images from Flickr anyway (probably pretty easily, with a bot).

But I agree, I’m disappointed that Wikimedia hasn’t made stronger ties to other free media holders. It needs a larger professional staff to make that happen, and hence needs more money. That’s why the fundraiser has been so disappointing, especially with so little matching funds.

Sue and company need to start schmoozing with billiionaire philanthropists.

Sage (User:Ragesoss) · 18. January 2008, 15:47


Sage, yeah, the loss is not in terms of content, yay for free content.

But what if some other cultural institution decides they want to do something similar?

If they own the copyright of their material, they talk to Flickr (or Creative Commons) they are as likely as not to walk out of there with a NC license. If they talk to us, we would steer them to a truly free license.

At the end of the day Flickr is not interested in curating cultural memorabilia for the world, they are interested in making money. But for us, I would have thought it was exactly what we were trying to do.

So it's sad that Wikimedia is not seen as the most glaringly obvious choice of partner for something like this.

pfctdayelise · 18. January 2008, 16:54


Schade is .de for “a shame”. (or maybe a bit stronger… a damn shame)

As for slurping up all the content, sure, we can do that. But as you say it’s the precedent… a very important and presumably (how could the LoC not be??) influential organization chose a for profit enterprise instead of WMF, who we would hope IS glaringly obvious. My fear is that is because, or at least partly because maybe WMF is perceived as not having its act together? That’s the thing about for profit enterprises, they have more people that are paid… and sometimes that helps keep focus.

Lar · 19. January 2008, 02:05


Hiring more developers is in the budget this year; it’s currently a matter of time and money (mostly time spent waiting for money!)

Brion · 19. January 2008, 04:17


Brion, yes, that is my favourite budget item. :)

The next question is, what will they be working on and who decides that?

pfctdayelise · 19. January 2008, 13:56


I think this failure is more likely due to a structural weakness in the structure of WMF — by this, I mean that it is a volunteer organization. Look at the list of people you mention, Brianna: it emphasizes the fact that many volunteers in a project are likely to vanish from it in the next few days at any time. While this is a problem for any volunteer-based organization, the fact that online communities are often loosely-organized only emphasize this unreliability.

Contrast this situation with people at a for-profit, who are more likely to be present — if admittedly not as altruistic as a team of volunteers — because they don’t get paid if they don’t show up every day at their job.

Even when this is not the case, groups like the Library of Congress presume it will be.

I don’t know what we can do to fight both this perception and the reality, but first we need to acknowledge they exist.


llywrch · 20. January 2008, 11:26

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