Natchez, Miss. (LOC)

Natchez, Miss. (LOC), originally uploaded by The Library of Congress.

When I talk with people about Flickr, the easy parts to explain are the aspects of organizing and sharing your own photos. Some folks get stuck on the sharing aspect; “why would I want everyone to see my personal photos?” they ask, and then I talk about the privacy settings.

But the unique and amazing aspects of Flickr go beyond sorting and sharing, and I find these harder to explain. There’s the fact that Flickr can be a personal archive or anything, not just photos. But it’s also a national archive and a way to document bigger experiences.

Take, for example, the Flickr sets of the Library of Congress. Thus far there are two, one with images from newspapers in the 1910s and one of color slides from the 1930s-1940s. The image above is from the latter group. They’re intriguing and absorbing to flip through, they’re documented with dates and locations and other details, and they’re all available to use in your own works.

Why is the U.S. Library of Congress doing this?

We’ve been acquiring photos since the mid-1800s when photography was the hot new technology. Because images represent life and the world so vividly, people have long enjoyed exploring our visual collections. Looking at pictures opens new windows to understanding both the past and the present. Favorite photos are often incorporated in books, TV shows, homework assignments, scholarly articles, family histories, and much more.

The Prints & Photographs Division takes care of 14 million of the Library’s pictures and features more than 1 million through online catalogs. Offering historical photo collections through Flickr is a welcome opportunity to share some of our most popular images more widely.

They invite the public to help in this project by tagging photos and solving “mysteries” by tagging photos and suggesting details.