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?

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