Mechanical Curator on Commons

December 15th, 2013 by

The internet has been very enthralled by the British Library’s recent release of the Mechanical Curator collection: a million public-domain images extracted from digitised books, put online for people to identify and discover. The real delight is that we don’t know what’s in there – the images have been extracted and sorted by a computer, and human eyes may never have looked at them since they were scanned.

Image taken from page 171 of '[Seonee, or, camp life on the Satpura Range ... Illustrated by the author, etc.]'

I wasn’t directly involved with this – it was released after I left – but it was organised by former colleagues of mine, and I’ve worked on some other projects with the underlying Microsoft Books collection. It’s a great project, and all the more so for being a relatively incidental one. I’m really, really delighted to see it out there, and to see the outpouring of interest and support for it.

One of the questions that’s been asked is: why put them on Flickr and not Commons? The BL has done quite a bit of work with Wikimedia, and has used it as the primary way of distributing material in the past – see the Picturing Canada project – and so it might seem a natural home for a large release of public domain material.

The immediate answer is that Commons is a repository for, essentially, discoverable images. It’s structured with a discovery mechanism built around knowing that you need a picture of X, and finding it by search or by category browsing, which makes metadata essential. It’s not designed for serendipitous browsing, and not able to cope easily with large amounts of unsorted and unidentified material. (I think I can imagine the response were the community to discover 5% of the content of Commons was made up of undiscoverable, unlabelled content…) We have started looking at bringing it across, but on a small scale.

Putting a dump on archive.org has much the same problem – a lack of functional discoverability. There’s no way to casually browse material here, and it relies very much on metadata to make it accessible. If the metadata doesn’t exist, it’s useless.

And so: flickr. Flickr, unlike the repositories, is designed for casual discoverability, for browsing screenfuls of images, and for users to easily tag and annotate them – things that the others don’t easily offer. It’s by far the best environment of the three for engagement and discoverability, even if probably less useful for long-term storage.

This brings the question: should Commons be able to handle this use case? There’s a lot of work being done just now on the future of multimedia: will Commons in 2018 be able to handle the sort of large-scale donation that it would choke on in 2013? Should we be working to support discovery and description of unknown material, or should we be focusing on content which already has good metadata?

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