What Flickr portends, in the long-(tail)-run
I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with Flickr for some time, but in some ways it’s better that this is following Brian’s excellent post. My best guess, I’ll plainly state, is that in the wake of Google’s mass digitization of published works (books, magazines, journals), major research libraries will only be distinguishable by three things:
- their architecture (physical)
- their librarians (departments)
- their collections (special -> digital)
The most flexible and adaptable of these differentiating factors, then, will most likely be our websites and digitized items (eventually, perhaps, our “linked data”). Certainly the physical architecture of the libraries will change most slowly, but with an average website “face-lift” occurring — let’s say — every three years, presently it may actually be the case that the average time frame of personnel shift amongst libraries/departments is approximately equal to any major attention lavished on the website and/or the addition/migration of major digitized collections. But soon, surely, it will be indisputable that it’s our digital collections alone that will be our most adaptable differentiating factor.
As such, it will equally be the most powerful method to level the variances between our libraries (think “open source software”) and, paradoxically, also the most powerful method to differentiate our libraries (think local developments on top of “open source software”). Furthermore, though our digitized surrogates will certainly retain the provenance of their real-world counterparts by means of metadata, my contention is that in the eventual wake of the mass digitization of special collections, major research libraries will only be distinguishable by — not three — but just two things:
- their architecture
- their librarians
And so, as our most unique resources become de-referenceable, these acts will slowly but eventually erase all differences in our collections (barring, of course, or perhaps only being slowed by, forced authentication and registration of online “researchers”) and return libraries to a pre-website state.
Rather than being feared, however, this should be our ultimate goal. Though universities will certainly retain their differences and specialties, the special collections of the libraries (those available online) will become the collections of all (of course, libraries will still need to maintain these collections, but it’s likely that they’ll perform this as a shared and proportionally balanced duty).
I should clarify, though: being returned to a “pre-website state” will not mean that a library will suddenly cease to exist online. Rather, the library’s online existence will no longer be controlled and contained, at least not in the same manner (and the site, as we know it now, might simply not need to exist). And this, finally, brings me back to Flickr, a small but timely example of the changes ahead.
But first, I should say, I had little to no experience with Flickr when setting out to include a sample of ECU’s digital collections (http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecu_digital_collections). I mention this at the onset to highlight Flickr’s ease of use and, also, the potential reasoning behind my false steps along the way, especially since I ended up working through the necessary steps in, literally, a backward fashion.
What follows is a bullet-list summary of my experience in the process so far (and please feel free to ask me about any particulars).
- Requested a free, non-commericial API from Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/services/api/)
- Selected public domain/copyright free items to share
- Batched and resized images to save space (wanted to be under the free account’s 100 MB/month cap)
- Wrote an XSLT stylsheet to remove just a few pieces of data from our METS record
- Persistent URL
- Added just one or two tags to each image based on “format” and “virtual collection” (opted not to add our subjects as tags or to display them at all)
- Used a text editor to take the output and put into a Python file, generally making sure that I wrapped strings in triple quotes
- Finally, I used “Beej’s Python Flickr API kit” for the mass upload and user authentication
- Update my old images with “machine tags“, as I neglected this in my first round
- Add a new set (the free account lets you have up to three)
- Get the Pro account
- Use the API to funnel the comments and tags from Flickr to our site, thereby linking user-supplied data from this Flickr image to that same image in our digital repository, which doesn’t yet have that comment or tag.
- Join The Commons on Flickr if approved
And things to consider if you set up a Flickr account:
- Don’t select a birthday that would make you under 18, or else you’ll need to use a credit card to verify parental consent (as if that alone won’t make everyone underage grow up quite quickly)
- If you’re using a free account, remember that though you’re able to upload 100MB a month, only your 200 most recent images will be displayed
Some interesting Library/Flickr articles to read:
- Historical Photos in Web Archives Gain Vivid New Lives by Noam Cohen
- Developing an Academic Image Collection with Flickr by Jeremy McWilliams
As our collections continue to disperse in the digital age, and as our collections begin to arrive in a predominately digital format, it’s my hope that we’ll be able to receive donations that can be shared online without restrictions.
At the same time, SAA and archivists in general will need to vigilantly campaign against the potential misappropriation of our collections. Though commercial partners and vendors might not offer to digitize our special collections for free, they will certainly come knocking on the doors soon enough, explaining that they can host our vast collections; but in this respect I hope that we do not yield. If we do, we’ll surely trap not only our libraries, but also our users; and, being a trap, the situation won’t come equipped with something as user-friendly as the Flicrk API to permit the free passport of our collections and users. Certainly, then, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t already be imagining the equivalent of the Hathi Trust for our special collection materials.