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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Crowdsourcing in the Commons

Mr. Buchanan, c. 1935
Courtesy of SIA
Identifying an image is one of my favorite things to do. Although often challenging, I enjoy trying to decipher going on, when the picture was taken and who was involved. It allows me to use my research skills.  You often have to think creatively to come up with some clue that may lead to a proper identification. The problem is, there are many images and only a small amount of time to devote to it.

Last month, the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) placed a series of  images on Flickr with the hope that the general public might be able to assist in identifying them. These photographs came from the Ruel P. Tolman Collection (Record Unit 7433). Tolman, director of the Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), collected a series of images of Smithsonian employees, artists, and other government workers. As an artist and amateur photographer, the images capture moments from the 1930s. Some contained useful captions, others had vague information, such as “Cpt. Locke” or  “Mr. F. Jackson.” We scanned and loaded the images to Flickr in hopes that viewers would be able to help us identify more about the people in the pictures. 

The results were wonderful. Members of the Flickr Commons successfully identify several of the images and provided excellent information to integrate in the Smithsonian’s catalogue entries.  What would have taken several days of research, took one day of cross-checking, saving time and finding answers. There are currently several crowdsourcing initiatives across the Smithsonian and other cultural institutions, which create opportunities for the public to become engaged with collection materials and become “citizen“ scientists, cataloguers, and researchers. I was pleasantly surprised by the results of this SIA project. I have often heard the criticism against using “non-experts,” but what I realized is that the kind individuals who volunteer their time to do the research deliver substantial information in return. More importantly, they have an impact on a collection by taking an active role in the Institution’s endeavors.

Not all of the images have been identified, so feel free to join in on the fun!

Courtney Esposito, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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