– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Thing 17

Thing 17 for 23Things for Research is Exploring images. Basically, it’s exploring Flickr. Which I use. So that’s handy!

I’ve uploaded about 40,000 images to Flickr by now, and have had more than 106,000 views of individual images. The bulk of the images are of (mostly entire) medieval manuscripts, but I’ve also added old photo albums, medieval title deeds, 19th century sketchbooks, letters, diaries, literary manuscripts, administrative records, transcriptions & finding aids… and my own photos of Balliol’s gardens in all seasons, which have proved surprisingly popular!

Flickr doesn’t fill my criteria for an online exhibition facility, because it’s set up so that photos have to be viewed in a highly structured, linear way. However, it makes a very good repository for zillions of images that do need to be arranged in a highly structured, linear way – e.g. a collection of Balliol’s medieval manuscripts, containing numerous sets, each of those containing images of each page of a manuscript, presented in (usually!) the same order as in the original book. It mirrors the structure of the real collections and their contents, and it’s easy to refer enquirers to freely available, high-resolution sources.

I also refer enquirers to Flickr when they ask for visual information about some building or other physical aspect of Balliol as it is now – because they will find a better pool of those images on Flickr than the college has itself. One good reason to continue to use and to add to it is that Flickr is becoming well known as perhaps the top place to go online to search for images of whatever particular something – much more effective than the image tab on search engines. So if it’s the best, more people will be using it, and it’s worth having a presence there. For instance: wish you’d got up early enough to catch all the merry May Day madness in the streets of central Oxford this morning? For a flavour of the atmosphere, you could do worse than start here.

What do we then do about online exhibitions? For a long time I wanted some kind of image slideshow facility on the college’s website, but now that seems dated and limited, no more interesting than what Flickr can offer (and more expensive!) Instead, I’m inclined to try some of the presentation tools I’ve investigated during 23Things – for instance, Prezi and some of the newspaper/magazine tools such as scoop.it, because they provide ways of presenting images and text in more visually flexible and interesting ways – one item doesn’t simply have to follow another; you can relate several things to each other in different ways. This also takes more planning and therefore time but I think I’ll end up with better presentations in the end. And blog posts are a great way of highlighting a single item, especially isolated ones such as my recent mystery postcard accession.

What about copyright? Well, I probably should mark my own photos of the gardens, but I don’t think anybody will be nicking them for a book and making millions with it. As for the images of archives and manuscripts, of course I am careful to avoid publishing anything whos copyright I know to be owned by another individual or institution, but for older material that belongs to Balliol, I’m with the British Library on this one. I think as much as possible should be as available online as possible, for reasons of both access and preservation.

Flickr has lots more potential than just getting good-quality images from A to B – indeed, I wish it were rather less clicky to get from one original-size image to the next in the set, and that there were a filename-preserving way of allowing viewers to download whole sets. I do use several other Flickr features:

tags: obviously, this is the most efficient way to ensure that your photos are picked up in searches!

descriptions: I use set descriptions to provide basic information about the source material, and to refer the viewer back to our website for more structured in-depth information, catalogues etc. So far I haven’t used individual photo descriptions much, as it would take huge amounts of time and would duplicate information on our website – I don’t really want to add a lot of new information to Flickr, because it’s hard to keep track of. But on the other hand, there is potential here for crowdsourcing/community projects such as mapping and transcription – more investigation and planning needed.

flickandshare: a 3rd-party app that allows you to send, or include in your set description, a link that lets viewers download whole sets of your photos. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to preserve your filenames, so viewers may have to download the images one at a time from a list of filenames, which is tedious but at least less irritating than having to click through to and download each individual original-size image direct from Flickr. Come on app people!

map: when marking up sets that relate to a particular place (especially outside Balliol, such as college livings, formercollege properties or addresses on old letters) I like to pin one or two (more makes it crowded and messy) to Flickr’s map – even though it does then label each mapped photo as taken in that place, which is hardly ever true in our case! This means that users who browse the map for a place that interests them will happen across Balliol’s relevant historic photos during their own search, rather than my waiting for them to make a structured investigation for e.g. documents about that place, which they might never do. And then they might just get interested…

groups: I’ve joined and posted photos to a number of Flickr group pools – these usually have quite narrow remits, and are a way of becoming visible to different and perhaps unexpected potential audience. Here’s my list of groups – some predictable (Archives & archivists on Flickr), others perhaps not quite so much so (Tulips in Bloom) Come and have a look!

  •     Manuscript Journeys (16 members)
  •     Oxfordshire Churches (241 members)
  •     Art of Heraldry (390 members)
  •     Tulips In Bloom (80 members)
  •     Manuscripta mediaevalia (395 members)
  •     archives & archivists on flickr (226 members)
  •     The Great War Archive Flickr Group (540 members)
  •     Oxford Colleges (82 members)
  •     Oxfordshire Gardens (25 members)
  •     Historical Type and Lettering (553 members)
  •     Sealing Wax (95 members)
  •     ArchivesOnFlickr (298 members)
  •     Handwritten Ledgers (19 members)
  •     converted buildings (15 members)
  •     Archivists (23 members)
  •     Old Paper (15 members)
  •     Book Inscriptions (169 members)

Any recommendations of other Flickr functionalities I should explore? suggestions welcome!

To sum up: Flickr has a dual function for my image collections: as a structured ‘digital repository’ – of facsimiles only, I hasten to add! – to refer enquirers to who have already been in touch about something specific; and as an opportunity for serendipitous discoveries that may provoke a view or two, or may lead to more browsing, focussed interest and an enquiry.

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