Saturday, November 22, 2008

Life magazine photos on Google: is it good?

I'm sure most people now know about Google's digitization of the Life magazine photo archives:

It may be thrilling but what does it mean? How are you supposed to find anything? I remember reading in 1964 or 1965 an article in Life analyzing the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination (the 45th anniversary of which is today). (As I remember it, the accompanying article indirectly expressed amazement that such a document existed at all. That may seem hard to believe today where cellphones capture and transact images of everything.)

I also remember an article from 1965 about the Russian conjoined twins Masha and Dasha. I tried searching for these things in the Life photo archive but with no luck.

Assuming that they've not yet digitized these yet, how is one supposed to search photographs? It's a question everyone's asking: how do you search a photograph for content? What if you're looking for a photograph of something whose content is not your main interest, but rather an association?

We have many hundreds of years to understand the classification and cataloging of book and book-like material - material that has text. But as far as I know, we don't have any standardized manner of cataloging photographs. To my knowledge, there are no efforts underway to try to come up with system that could be used beyond the domain of those who invent it (perhaps the Getty Center is working on something)?

Librarians, museum specialists, academics, or people from related fields should start an effort. The risk is that this will be another project Google or another for-profit institution) will undertake - and rob it from those whose thinking has greater historical, intellectual and sociological depth. (Interestingly, motion pictures have been around few years than plain photographs, but their nature has led to a greater cataloging history.)

So where's the effort to come up with standards for describing the content of photographs?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Initiative and leadership

"Churchill also understood, better than his own generals and admirals, the vital important of taking the offensive. As he told his generals in 1940, "the completely defensive habit of mind, which has ruined the French, must not be allowed to ruin all our initiative."

[Winston Churchill, as quoted in Carlo D'Este's Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 187-1945, reviewed by Robert Kagan in The New York Times Book Review (November 9, 2008), 48.]

I used to think that once you pass a certain point in your career, then you can take on leadership roles. While that might be true for some situations, my current feeling (based on current books and articles) is that you have to take such leadership steps from the outset of whatever you do. You have to be active and show that your leadership qualities are an integral part of your personality, of who you are. You can not be passive; you must be active.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What would I learn from this?

Several months ago I was informally interviewing a someone for a position. I emphasized archival collections and mentioned some famous names that would be recognized. After acknowledging these collections, the prospective interviewee's response took me off guard:

"What would I learn from this?"

I was so flabbergasted I repeated the question in case I had misunderstood it. Here we were, a world-famous library, and a college student was asking what could be learned from working in it. In retrospect, the interview was over at that moment, and I should have told the prospective intern directly and sent them on their way. (If a person can not understand that working with people's personal documents has tremendous value, then there's no point in going on.) But I was nice and continued on for a few minutes.

I still feel justified in wanting to end the interview, but now I see the question is a useful one. Here was a typical college student who had very limited experience using a library. It was an potential opportunity to expand the mind of someone that was clearly limited. (Having worked on an elevator speech several months ago, I supplied what I felt was an appropriate response.)

How many countless other college students are like this? Students who've had all that they need or wanted in their textbooks, and never had to research anything that wasn't already known in their personal libraries or space.

I guess I'm spoiled in that I've always been curious about the world around me and have gone sometimes to great lengths to find out more about it. So maybe we have to get rid of the notion that a library is for "books" and start remaking and marketing ourselves as places to obtain knowledge, a space where one can not only relax but let one's mind expand - and that this is a healthy and necessary endeavor for life. Experienced researchers know how to do this. It's those who don't know and don't care that we must reach and move.