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Flicking through Flickr

My freshman year of college corresponded with what I am dubbing the “digital camera revolution.”  You could scarcely go anywhere on a weekend without seeing someone taking a picture with a digital camera.  At parties, during spring break, on trips to away games for football, and even before class, friends and colleagues were snapping away.  Now this “revolution” occurred in an age when Facebook had yet to develop the photo album feature, so friends flocked to websites to upload their pictures, get the link, and share them through their AIM profiles (wow, that makes me feel old).

Today, it seems most pictures are taken with smartphones and immediately uploaded to Facebook.  But while this seems the norm, some websites still offer individuals and organizations a place to upload and share their photos.  One such site is flickr.  I’ll admit, I haven’t used flickr before, so I was on a bit of a learning curve this week as I browsed the site.  I did dislike the fact that it’s linked to yahoo, and that I would need a yahoo account and a separate flickr name to post and comment on pictures.  I already have far too many screen names and passwords.  And as someone who always needs an obnoxiously long password, it was a bit frustrating to need to write down yet another one.

I found the flexibility of flickr very refreshing.  The fact that images are tagged really makes it easy to find what you’re looking for (for the most part).  I remember old picture sites were all organized by user.  While you can search user images here, it’s nice to be able to streamline the search process by looking for specific tags.  My search for “sleeping pugs,” for example, yielded dozens and dozens of results.  It really takes some of the best aspects of these new technologies, the connectedness, and applies it to images.

At the same time, it’s nice that you can search by group, too.  My search for “history” yielded a jumbled mass when I just searched for the same term by group or person it was more manageable and led me to what I wanted faster.  This was generally the tactic I used to find historical groups and specific archives.  Though I did accidentally luck my way into finding the Smithsonian’s various collections of images.

Still, it isn’t a perfect site.  I don’t quite know why a baseball field showed up when I searched for “gilded age,” but I suppose no search feature is without its faults.  So I think you’re always going to get some extra images you weren’t really looking for in each search.  I’m particularly intrigued by the interconnectedness promoted by flickr.  I think it’s great that historical societies and museums can use tags to help organize images, and that informed users can add comments to help fill in information about a given image.  I can see how this might be especially helpful for someone doing research into genealogy, for example.

I do wonder what the future could hold for flickr.  It certainly has perks, but it’s still limited in its complete application.  With museums and archives moving towards digitized formats, I wonder if the tagging and comment feature could be used for other archival material, not just pictures.  There are pictures of everything from historic photos to animals on flickr.  So could you upload an image of a manuscript to flickr?  I think that might be problematic as far as copyright issues are concerned.

I don’t know if flickr is something a historian should use to any great extent.  The more modern history you’re doing the more useful you will most likely find the website.  There were few images, that I found, of early Pennsylvania.  But if I was researching 1950s Chicago, I’d find flickr much more useful as a research aid or place to get started.  Ultimately, I think it’s a worthwhile website.  Certainly, the best of any I’ve found that allows you to upload images.  And with the work various historical groups have put into using flickr, I can definitely see a role for historians.

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