April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

The Commons on Flickr: A Primer

George Oates, Flickr/Yahoo! Inc., San Francisco, USA


Flickr is a four year old online photosharing community. Before January of 2008, it primarily held "user-generated content," photographs and stories from individuals in practically every country on the planet. Pioneering a variety of "Web 2.0" technologies like tagging, Flickr has grown into an enormous corpus of photography that reflects humanity over the last four years, and beyond. "The Commons" is a program we've developed to introduce publicly-held photography collections into the mix. Releasing a pilot partnership with the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Catalog has at once provided an interesting counterbalance to this "user-generated" archive and also begun to test ideas around the knowledge, authority and participation of the general public. Primarily intended to increase access to the vast collections of photography held in libraries, archives and museums around the world, the program also seeks to gather additional context about objects in these collections, and potentially even feedback or be cross-referenced by those institutions participating. There are thousands of interested members of the general public already adding information and knowledge about the content released in the pilot program. This paper is intended to outline the progress of the pilot so far, and to provide information for interested parties about how to participate in the Commons on Flickr.

Keywords: Flickr, The Commons, Web 2.0, tagging, collaboration, Library of Congress


Flickr launched in February of 2004, and has grown into an enormous photo archive of over 2.3 billion images. There are over one million photos uploaded every day (that's somewhere around 4,000 every minute). The Flickr infrastructure is built to serve the application and photographs at top speed, and the design of the site is optimized for searching, viewing and exploring images.

Our community is made of over 20 million people. There are myriad examples of community interaction and collaboration and the community we've nurtured is known for its supportive, intelligent, friendly nature. There are thousands of groups on Flickr, dedicated to a vast range of particular interests, many of which have well over one thousand members.

There are already several examples of cultural heritage institutions making use of Flickr, more or less in isolation. There seem to be two main types of use at this stage:

  1. For general outreach
    Includes "behind the scenes" documentation. Exhibitions being installed; photographs of preservation work; commentary from staff about collections. Some examples of this type of outreach are the Brooklyn Museum, or the V&A
  2. To display collections
    There are a few cases of institutions sharing content from their photographic collections and/or physical object collections. There are a variety of levels of engagement, and inclusion of institution-specific metadata included in each record, or not.

We were thrilled when the Library of Congress (L.C.) contacted us in the middle of 2007 to talk about publishing some of the 14 million photographs held in their Prints & Photographs Catalog. It was in the process of developing that partnership that I had the idea for the Commons. 

The Library of Congress Pilot

The pilot project launched on January 16, 2008. We had worked together for the previous three months or so developing our plan for the pilot's release. This included debate and discussion around what to publish initially, how to represent the Library of Congress on Flickr, and negotiating new Terms of Service that the Library agreed upon with Yahoo!, specifically regarding their institutional account.

Helena Zinkham, the acting Chief of the Prints & Photographs Catalog, had carefully selected content from two existing collections she knew to be popular: "News from the 1910s", set of 1,500 photographs from the Bain New Service collection containing almost 40,000 glass negatives made ca. 1900-1920, and "1930s-40s in Color", images of rural areas and farm labor, as well as aspects of World War II mobilization, including factories, railroads, aviation training, and women working between 1939 and 1944. We intentionally planned that there would be a minimum of description or organization to the 3,150 photos uploaded, to provide a "blank slate" for Flickr members to describe things as observed, without constraint.

Both Flickr and The Library of Congress posted articles to their respective blogs, and then we watched and waited to see what would happen. We were stunned by the response.

Within two and a half days, the Flickr community added just over 20,000 tags to the two collections. (See There was also a tremendous amount of interest from the press and in the blogosphere. Frankly, both parties were somewhat overwhelmed, but in the most positive way.

Joining The Commons on Flickr

As we consult with more institutions about the potential of this program, we are beginning to consolidate feedback and functional demands into guidelines for further participation in the Commons. The program is just under three months old at the time of creating this document, so it's important to acknowledge that this outline may change in future.

Program Objectives

  • Increase access to publicly-held photographic collections
    Above all else, the mandate of museums and libraries around the world is to increase access to their collections. Flickr is a vessel to make use of to share your collections with millions of people from all over the world, both Flickr members (who can interact with the collections leaving comments and so forth) and the general public (who may view and share public Commons content).
  • Gather context and information
    Part of the Commons design on Flickr explicitly invites the general Flickr membership to contribute knowledge, description, correction and stories to photographs they see. Both the L.C. and Flickr teams have been simply amazed by both the volume and quality of feedback provided so far.
    • There is also a secondary objective here: To demonstrate the usefulness and validity of folksonomic data. Not in opposition to curatorial or archival expertise, but as a supplement or counterpart to it. 
  • Feed back gathered information
    Inform the institution's catalog, and possibly others in future, where relevant. It will be up to each participating institution to determine where and when information will be useful to enter in to their catalog. The L.C. team has recently updated approximately 70 records in their catalog as a direct result of participation in the Commons, and decided to link from some catalog records back to the stories and conversation about a particular photograph available on Flickr.
  • Collect tools to share
    There is a wonderful opportunity to create a shared pool of software so that smaller institutions without the necessary web development resources can make use of uploading and/or downloading software written by another institution's web team. For example, the L.C. web development team made modifications to an open source uploader, flickrj, in order to inject their Flickr presence with information directly from their catalog records. Given that these modifications are also open source, others may use (and modify) this software to publish their photographs on Flickr.

Requirements for Participation

  1. All content in the institutional account intended for inclusion in the Commons must be marked "no known copyright restrictions" (see below)
  2. We will only be accepting content from photographic collections, and not photographs of physical objects in a collection. This may change in future, but for now, we want to maintain a tight focus on photography for the contents of the Commons
  3. The institution must indemnify Yahoo! Inc. against potential copyright disputes, signing additional Terms of Service that also establish its presence on Flickr as an organization, not an individual (which is the standard contract).

"No Known Copyright Restrictions"

This verbiage was developed in collaboration with L.C. counsel, and is intended as a guideline for use, not a license per se. Each participating institution will be entirely responsible for confirming its ability to publish content under this guideline, and should look to present its interpretation online for reference.

It is important to note that publishing content on the internet means that attribution may not always happen. There are some simple ways to try to ensure that appropriate reference happens, such as a polite note in the description of the photo; something along the lines of "If you choose to share this photograph outside of Flickr, please provide either a link back to this page, or mention of [Institution Name] wherever you use it. Thank you."

The Community & Your Institution

The Library made about 10,000 new "friends" on Flickr as a direct result of participation. "Friends" in this context are people who now count the Library's Flickr stream as something they'd like to stay in touch with, which will in turn show up in their "photos from your friends" page. Members can keep in touch with new uploads the Library sends in – incidentally, they've published another 300 or so photos in recent weeks, at about 50 per week.

There is also a wonderful opportunity to establish personal identity of curators, archivists or librarians on Flickr, providing another portal through which to ask for assistance in identifying or correcting catalog information. We are looking to develop the facility for an institution's staff members to have access to the institution's "Recent Activity" stream as individuals, not simply by many staff logging in to the one account.

Flickr claims no expertise in curation. Each participating institution will choose what should be published on to Flickr, and when. There is flexibility in what to display alongside each photo submitted. (See the Library of Congress stream for examples). It's possible to provide a link back to original catalog source, which maintains the opportunity for continuing revenue in photo sales, etc.

Feedback: Results and Examples

There are different sorts of feedback provided for the photographs, using tags and in photo comments: transcription; photo format/technology; timeframes; creator name; subjects based on the contents of image; things in the image that weren't in the record like "yellow" or "apple" etc; transcription of signs in the photos; general commentary: "dapper"; humour – "UFO"; checking a source; cross-referencing; expanding the context – "LA Bombing"; emotional responses – "Wow"; machine tags; geolocative; spelling variants; non-english words; corrections on the catalog record, or to other taggers.

"Rosie the Riveter"

We were thrilled to observe a spontaneous collection emerge from the "1930s-40s in Color" photographs. Where the Library had classified these photos with such subject headings as Airplane industry, Women—Employment, World War, 1939-1945, Assembly-line methods, Drilling, United States--California--Long Beach, the Flickr community pulled 76 photos in the collection together using the tag "rosie the riveter." This is just one example of many where cultural reference has been used to describe the Library's content, and create ad-hoc groupings based on 'common language.'  See


The community has been able to cross-reference many of the Library's photos with other information on the internet, primarily resources on sites such as Wikipedia. This ad-hoc, supplemental context allows viewers to get a first step into wider research of the context in which these photos were taken.

The issue of the Library's authority is not questioned, but rather supplemented by information, effort and knowledge on the part of the millions of people in the Flickr community. Information that would take a curator potentially years to uncover flows thick and fast directly from individuals who either correct, augment or cross-reference the gorgeous photographs on Flickr. These stories and comments are collected and kept on Flickr, and are clearly understood to be contributed by Flickr members, and not by the librarians themselves. They provide additional color to the records in the Library's wonderful collection.


Both the Library staff and myself have been utterly charmed by the generous, participatory nature of the input into the Commons so far. On a personal note, I'm looking forward to increasing access to other photographic archives from around the world. (We've received over 30 enquiries so far, from large to small libraries and museums.)  It has been fascinating to talk with and listen to the reflections of the Library of Congress team as it processes and analyses all the information we've received. There are lots of questions about how to combine the folksonomic data collected on Flickr with the structured, catalogued information of institutions.

It will be interesting to watch how the Commons grows. The ideal is that other institutions join, and special interest groups from the millions of people using Flickr will seek out and help describe content that they are interested in, and have knowledge about. This will make both the institutional catalogue (or links from it) richer, and help – above all – to increase access to the world's publicly-held photographic collections.

Cite as:

Oates, G., The Commons on Flickr: A Primer, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted