Making Sense of Historic Photographic Collections on Flickr The Commons: Institutional and User Perspectives

Paper
Bronwen Colquhoun, UK

Published paper: Making Sense of Historic Photographic Collections on Flickr The Commons: Institutional and User Perspectives

Flickr The Commons has been in operation for over four years and currently hosts the photographic collections of fifty-six cultural institutions from fourteen different countries worldwide. With the aim to show online users “hidden treasures in the world's public photography archives”, and make these collections “richer” through user input and knowledge contribution, The Commons proposes not only an alternative viewing environment from which to explore historic photographs, but also advocates an opportunity for users to contribute information and find new ways of creating meaning for photographs. But how do audiences create value and meaning for the photographs that are available within these online platforms? In particular, how does Flickr The Commons facilitate the development of these meanings? Cultural institutions can learn a great deal from the activity and behaviour of online communities of interest but in what ways can they use this information to further support these communities and make their collections more engaging and relevant for visitors and online users in the future? This paper will explore these questions by drawing on qualitative research of the Flickr The Commons activities of three participating cultural institutions and their users; the National Maritime Museum, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, and the Library of Congress. Through highlighting examples from interviews and action research projects undertaken at each institution, this paper argues that Flickr The Commons facilitates the development of new meaning and content around photographs through the provision of functionalities that encourage personal exploration, knowledge-sharing and re-appropriation of photographic collections. As a result, The Commons provides an opportunity for cultural institutions to re-evaluate their photographic collections in accordance with the interests and activities of the communities that use and contribute to them.