A Flickr of hope for Tennessee's archives...

In recent weeks, I have highlighted some social media and digital archiving innovations by the Smithsonian, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress to illustrate a point: Connectivity and interactivity are critical components of any online outreach effort. These nationally-known cultural heritage institutions have been unafraid to experiment, allowing the end user to interact with content. Social media gives archivists an opportunity to step outside the box and into a new world, making their collections relevant to a whole new audience.

Today, I'd like to bring the focus back to my home state of Tennessee, where in my estimation social media use by archives is vastly underutilized. The image sharing site, Flickr, for example, shows great promise and potential, particularly for archival institutions with a limited budget. Yet, based on my own unscientific survey of Tennessee's cultural heritage organizations, Flickr is not widely used by Tennessee archivists. There is really no reason at all for archives not to have some social media presence on Flickr. It's free, it's easy to use, and for smaller institutions, Flickr is a great way to share your archives' collections with the public with very little expense.

Here are a couple of examples where my fellow Tennessee archivists have taken advantage of what Flickr has to offer...

Friends of the Nashville Metro Archives

Images from Nashville's past come to life on the Friends of the Metro Archives Flickr photostream. There are 152 images in this online collection -- both black-and-white and color photographs of buildings, public places and even maps -- taken at various times in Nashville's history.

The images appear to have been uploaded from 2003-2005, yet despite the lack of recent activity the Friends of the Nashville Metro Archives have left a unique online record of Nashville's past.

Some of the images offer detailed descriptions while others have only an image number and location. Here is a wonderful opportunity for someone with a keen interest and expertise in Nashville history to contribute to the online narrative. Flickr offers users the opportunity to comment, share, or add images to your own list of favorites. A picture is worth a thousand words, but descriptions are priceless to historians and archivists looking to solve a mystery or identify an unknown location, building or person in a photograph.

The Nashville Flood Digital History Project (Nashville Public Library)

The Nashville Public Library's 2010 Flood Digital History Project was announced in October following the devastating floods in May of that year.

The project utilizes videos, photographs and personal accounts to record the May flood's aftermath. The Nashville Public Library and 11 other community agencies began interviewing first responders, business owners and residents who experienced the flood. Additionally, the NPL established a presence on Flickr where individuals could share their own personal photos from the flood.

History does not have to be in the distant past to be worth saving and sharing with others. The 2010 floods impacted thousands of lives in Middle Tennessee, and the effects are still lingering for many others to this very day. This outreach effort by the NPL illustrates how Flickr can connect a user with an institution in a very meaningful way, not just focusing on the history of our past, but also chronicling the history we are living today.

Where to go for more inspiration?

So Tennessee archivists, here's your call to action. If you're looking for more inspiration to get started using Flickr, I would encourage you to check out the Flickr Commons where you can access the hidden treasures of some of the world's greatest photography archives, including The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, The New York Public Library and The U.S. National Archives.

You can easily connect to Flickr through other social media outposts such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, and you can give your images context by adding descriptions such as titles, tags, location, and names of people, making searches useful and dynamic. Through comments, favorites, tagging, and notes, Flickr also allows end users the ability to interact and participate with your collections, providing your archive with a powerful descriptive tool.

Be aware, however, that Flickr does have its weaknesses, as was recently pointed out in a very informative comment by Tom Wood on my previous blog post about NARA's "Citizen Archivist" initiative. Nevertheless, archivists should not be afraid to think outside the box and take a step or two outside our physical institutions to reach the public. Social media tools like Flickr are just one way to accomplish this.

Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.