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Title: Untitled

Title: Untitled
Posted by DPLA on February 26, 2014 in Blog, Guest Posts.

A guest post from Lisa Gregory, Digital Projects Librarian, North Carolina Digital Heritage Center

 

It started with this photo:

"Unidentified Woman on Porch," from the Ashe County Public Library via the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center. Copyright Ashe County Public Library. The materials in this collection are made available for use in research, teaching and private study.

“Unidentified Woman on Porch,” from the Ashe County Public Library via the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center. Copyright Ashe County [North Carolina] Public Library.

 

I was looking for an image to highlight in social media–one that might have been overlooked because it didn’t have much metadata–so I searched the image collections on DigitalNC for the word “unidentified.”  Despite the fact that I was in a hurry, I paused over the image above. She looks pleased, maybe a little proud or amused. I have no idea who this is or where it was taken, and the plant (some sort of lily?) isn’t something I could name. She’s holding it quite deliberately.

What started as a single word search led to a bit of serendipity when I then took it over to dp.la, where I realized I could scroll through an ocean of images with the term “unidentified.” I will be honest – my first reaction was dismay at the 45,000+ results. Like librarians or archivists or curators were failing America and/or our users.

Those of us working with digital collections, or collections in general, are used to the unidentified. They arrive from institutions of all sizes, acquired without much provenance and even less annotation.  These days, the well-described is privileged or even a luxury in our text-centered search environments and with the workflows we adopt to make as much information accessible as efficiently as possible. But as I began skimming through the first few hundred “unidentified” results in the DPLA, I came away with two prevailing, naval-gazing thoughts.

1. While used frequently, “unidentified” is nuanced. Stepping out of my librarian mind, I tried to let myself enjoy a little meaning and aesthetic in “unidentified.” When I did that, I realized that we apply it with more intention than expected…

“Unidentified,” perhaps because of condition or how the image was created. These may be unintelligible, but I find them all visually intriguing.

Unidentified” from the University of Utah – J. Willard Marriott Library Mountain West Digital Library

mwdl unidentified

Unidentified woman” from the University of Kentucky via Kentucky Digital Library

kentucky digital library unidentified

Unidentified infant” from the University of Kentucky via Kentucky Digital Library

unidentified infant


Then, there’s the “unidentified” landscapes with nothing immediately apparent to make them distinct. But someone was there, sometime, and made the choice to shoot.

Unidentified landscape” from the Arizona Historical Society Library and Archives via Mountain West Digital Library

unidentified landscape

[Unidentified landscape]” from the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museumvia The Portal to Texas History

portal texas landscape

Unidentified landscape” from the Arizona Historical Society Library and Archives via Mountain West Digital Library

mwdl unid landscape

 

And then, there are the intentionally “unidentified.” The photographer named this “Unidentified cat,” which is saying something about how we feel about animals.

Unidentified cat” from Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth

unid cat


Or, there are situations where perhaps the subjects would wish to remain anonymous, as in the image below.

Unidentified woman and unidentified man” from the Atlanta History Center via the Digital Library of Georgia

unid women and man

 

Finally, we might choose “unidentified” to prod for help.

Unidentified machine” from the University of Utah – J. Willard Marriott Library Mountain West Digital Library

unid machine


Perhaps “unidentified” was applied for the reasons I guessed, or maybe not. Describers rely on it because of time, resources, and commitment to only supplying what we can verify. But we can and do use it discriminately. I like that.

 2. Which brings me to my second thought:  Has the digital world helped to make “unidentified” less pejorative?

As describers of things, we court identification when we make things broadly available. We write articles and hold events. We encourage and nurture commenting and tagging (see the links below the description). We make games and commonses.  We hope for images situated in time and space. Because we realize that description often means findability and access.

But maybe the scale of the DPLA will help us back away from being uneasy with the unidentified. My serendipitous search led me to think of “unidentified” not only as a deficit (because I can’t shake thinking of it as such) but also as a choice that’s made and an interesting reflection of how we let others know what we don’t know.

I wish for more ways to explore the number of unidentified images that will grow as the DPLA does – any ideas?

 

Featured image courtesy of the Ashe County Public Library, via the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center [source].


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