The Library of Congress hasn’t always been friendly to the public-at-large. Well into the latter half of the twentieth century, institutional culture reflected its original purpose as a reference library for Senators, Representatives and their staffs, and directions and admonitions to researchers seeking access to its collections served to discourage frivolous bibliographic meandering. It was an exciting place to go, but not for the faint-hearted.
Thomas Jefferson intended the Library of Congress as a democratic institution, however. What that has meant, of course, has changed over time as the history of the Library of Congress demonstrates, but when historian James Billington became the thirteenth Librarian of Congress in 1987, the contemporary period of democratization began. Billington began programs to increase public access to Library collections.
The most recent foray into democratization is a project the Library blog has called My Friend Flickr: A Match Made in Photo Heaven. The rationale is explained in FAQs. It’s both an experiment in the implications of social tagging and a practical measure to help the Library gain more information about the content of its collection though public commentary and participation. The two initial collections (more than 3,000 photographs) on Flickr have no copyright restrictions and are from the 1910s and 1930s-1940s. Even if visitors to the collections weren’t alive when the photos were taken, their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents likely were. There’s a connection.
This kind of endeavor raises questions about how to extend historical archives to a wider public. These two collections are the stuff of everyday life in America—at least some people’s America, and that in itself is a history lesson often distorted through today’s lens of political correctness.