Monday, August 21, 2006

Smithsonian Opens Photo Archives... Sort Of

The Washington Post reports this morning:

From its very beginnings, the Smithsonian Institution has taken and collected photographs. Masses of them.

John Brown's steely eyes were captured in a daguerreotype by August Washington in 1846. A now-extinct Tasmanian hyena, sleek and striped, attracted photographer Thomas W. Smillie in 1891. Harry Bowden went to Jackson Pollock's chaotic studio in 1949 and found an unintentional abstract of cans and brushes. As the 20th century ended, the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory Center recorded hot gas in the Milky Way.

Spread across the Smithsonian's 18 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo are 13 million photographs. In the hallways and laboratories are about 700 collections of photos. Harnessing them into a form that gives researchers and the public some access has long been a goal for Smithsonian caretakers.

But like a lot of things at the Smithsonian, you had to know where to go to find what you were looking for. Some photos were locked away in the researchers' storehouses.

Tomorrow, the Smithsonian Photography Initiative is launching an electronic means of looking at a small part of this vast collection. A Web site, http://www.spi.si.edu/ , will provide access to 1,800 digital images, the work of 100 photographers, who used 50 different processes.

Read the whole story here.

The article goes on to quote Smithsonian administrators who admit that less than 2000 images out of some 13 million seems rather a paltry effort. however, they say that they will see how people use the site and determine from that usage how to proceed with putting more images online.

Obviously there is probably a lot here of interest to and family historians. So I will be interested to see what's been chosen in the first tiny increment of this project and will urge that the Smithsonian move to open up more of their photographic archives. I suspect that genealogists and family historians will be among the most interested users.

1 comment:

barry said...

Hi Craig... I just came across your post today via google.

You might be interested in a little historical trivia wrt Smithsonian photo archives.

I was involved in trying to interest several of the largest collections in making photos available online back in the mid-1980s.

I will skip the technical details of how that was to have worked - and it would have worked just fine - but I will note that the primary objection was that it would take at least 20 years to digitize all the images and that it was clear that the scanning resolution was going to improve continuously forever, so how to know what resolution to do such massive work at?

The secondary reason was that it was not always clear that the rights they had to the images allowed them to distribute in that form, and that is still a major issue.

I think the estimates in your post of photo counts current might be low, very low - back then, American History had 6 Million images + 9 full time photographers at least, Air and Space had at least 13 million images not including video, and so on.

Those were probably the largest at the Smithsonian, but I recall that I identified at least 25 image collections in DC alone that had > 100,000 images (our target market).

I forget the Library of Congress numbers, but I clearly recall meeting with National Geographic and they told us that they had 50 Million images dating back 100 years or so.

All this was long before digital photography btw.

Barry Caplan