Toronto Archives: Should they go all digital?

Should the Toronto Archives be on Flickr Commons?

Earlier this week, the U.S. Library of Congress made a huge splash on the web when they announced that they had decided to collaborate with Flickr and share their photo collection on the web. With one of the largest publicly-held photo collections in the world, this is not only big news for The Library of Congress, but it is quite exciting for web users who now have easy access to a collection that tells a compelling story of the people who built the country to our south.

While their collection may not be as extensive as that of the LoC, the Toronto Archives hold photos from as far back as 1856. This extensive compendium on all things Toronto is partially-accessible through the web, but for the most part, it's still hidden away from our city's general public, many of whom have no clue that the Archives even exist.

Is it time for the Toronto Archives to collaborate with an organization like Flickr in order to share their collections with a larger audience?

The Library of Congress definitely sees the promise in the new partnership. Not only do they get to share their collection with a larger audience, but they get to tap into the power of that same audience to tag and categorize the collection at the same time:

If all goes according to plan, the project will help address at least two major challenges: how to ensure better and better access to our collections, and how to ensure that we have the best possible information about those collections for the benefit of researchers and posterity.

Not everyone is sure that the crowdsourcing of metadata is such a good idea. Mathew Ingram, a Toronto-based technology writer for The Globe and Mail, worries about the potential for incorrect captioning or even misuse of tags:

The problem with letting anyone tag a photo is that their ability to do so properly is completely unknown. To take one example from the Flickr page, there's a shot of a guy wearing old automobile goggles, behind the wheel of an old car -- and people have tagged it "goggles," "wheel" and "man." So far, so good. However, the photo is identified as "Burman," and someone has tagged it "burnam." That's not only unhelpful, it's wrong.

These issues would obviously affect the Toronto Archives as well, should they decide to follow the LoC's lead. But are those concerns enough to make the the city archives reconsider opening up their collection on the web?

If the Toronto Archives do decide to open up to a larger web audience, would it not be smarter to collaborate with the Wikimedia Commons instead of Flickr, a commercial photo service? Is there perhaps merit in doing both?

While there are a lot of questions that the City needs to ask itself before it embarks on any kind of project of this magnitude, it is almost impossible to argue that opening up the Toronto Archives to a larger audience isn't of benefit to both Torontonians and to the City itself.

We'll keep doing what we can to dig through the archives and share them with Toronto residents, but it's high time the City stepped up and did more with this remarkable resource.

(Photo: Duty Books, by David Pritchard.)

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