I came across a fascinating article this week about the research that historian Joe Manning has been doing with archival photographs.  He has been working to identify the subjects of photographs taken by Lewis Hine from 1908 to 1924 and those taken by the Farm Security Administration and other government agencies in the 1930s and 1940s.  His interest in these historical photos began in 2000 when he met the author Elizabeth Winthrop, who had written a fictional account of the life of one of the mill girls pictured by Hine but stalled when trying to find information about the actual course of the young girl’s life.  She hired Manning to further research the young spinner girl that Hine had made famous; you can read on his web site his six chapter recounting of his process of identifying Addie Card.

Manning did not stop with that success and has continued trying to put names to faces made familiar by documentary photographers.  His web site has an Old Photos Gallery where he posts the pictures about which he wants to find more information — anything from simply a name to family relations to details about a life lived.  He has sometimes tried running ads in the local newspaper from the area where the picture was taken, but I imagine the relatively transient nature of many Americans in the last few decades has made it increasingly unlikely that he can find local residents who have knowledge of people who lived in the area around a century earlier.  So Manning also avails himself of resources like the U.S. census and databases like Ancestry.com.  He seems to have the fortuitous combination of a passion for his work and a knack for tracking down leads.

From my work and research in archives, I know there are countless pictures with little to no identifying information.  But obviously Joe Manning can’t research all of them.  So how do archives interest users in these sorts of crowdsourcing activities?  The Davidson College Archives has a photograph identification page, but it’s not clear what happens to the information that is submitted by users.  Rose Holley has suggested that transparency — both of goals and of outcomes — is a key to successful crowdsourcing projects.  Holley also suggests that the projects need to be fun for the users; NARA seems to have embraced this idea with the “tagging missions” advertised on its Citizen Archivist Dashboard.

Ultimately, I think the key is simple — something has to spark an individual user’s curiosity.  That curiosity is what creates the persistence that leads to important discoveries.  So perhaps the first step for archives is one of outreach — of letting people know what sorts of items are held within the repository and are in need of contextual information, so their curiosity can be piqued.  And while I’ve witnessed more than one archivist sigh about the narrowly focused research efforts of genealogists, it seems to me that this sort of dogged determination is just the type of effort that archives would be wise to harness.  While not every person will look at an unknown photograph and recognize an ancestor, it does seem that those who make an attempt to fill in knowledge about their own family are predisposed to want to help others find similar sorts of information — and are probably aware of some of the resources that facilitate such searches.  So in a time of vanishing financial resources and limited staffs for archives, it behooves us all to get rid of any preconceived notions about our users and embrace all the possibilities of how our collections can be used and improved.

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