NR Joins Flickr

Wow, the National Register office is getting so hip to the lingo, they’re now posting photos on Flickr! I’m not sure whether they plan to add all the National Register photos from their entire collection from the last 40 years or so, but here’s what they say in their Flickr profile:

Photographs posted by this account are from the official National Register and National Historic Landmarks archives – courtesy of the respective State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO). Some of our photographs were taken by NR/NHL staff members. We have posted photography in order to increase knowledge of our listings and the history behind their significance. We ask that you take a look at our Copyright Statement before using the pictures. Our second reason for joining was to increase dialogue with you. We encourage Flickr users to post feedback and ask us questions. We may contact you for permission to feature your photography on our website.

Check out their photostream at and see their photos for Mississippi at (so far it’s only the Beverly Theater, but I assume it will grow). They’re also adding their photos to the various National Register groups–very neighborly–including our Mississippi group that you can see on the left side of this blog.

The National Register office’s new policy on photographs makes it clear that their goal is to make nominations completely digital within the next five years. I have enough archivist in me to be hesitant to embrace the “all-digital, all the time” world that we seem to be moving toward, especially given the National Register’s history of emphasizing both archival standards and the documention of historic buildings.

On the other hand, the National Register needs to remain accessible to the average historic homeowner who might want to write his own nomination. I support that, and I think state historic preservation offices find that that is the only way that many individual nominations will be written.  And since most people are now more familiar and comfortable with digital cameras, we need to be flexible enough to accomodate that.

On the third hand, there are a few things about the photo policy that are really shocking to me in terms of consistency and quality. First, looking at the “Best,” “Acceptable,” “Not Acceptable” format, I have a fear that “Acceptable” will be the new norm, and the “Acceptable” I see doesn’t seem to be a very good standard: for instance, a 2 megapixel photo is acceptable? True, if it’s 300 pixels per inch (which is going to be hard to enforce on private owners who will see only the “2 megapixels” and run with that) it can be printed as a 4×6 print, but that’s it, that’s the highest it can go, whereas in the old days, a 35 mm black-and-white negative could at least be made into a 5×7 and usually a decent 8×10 if it was good film. To me, in today’s world, it’s not draconian to require a 6 megapixel photograph–most decent digital point and shoots can do that, and it keeps something of a reasonable standard, whose purpose is to ensure the building’s details are clear.

Then veering back toward a more difficult standard, they say that the “Best” image format is something called “First generation Tag image file format (TIFF) or RAW.” Now, I’m a pretty fair techno-geek and I use a 12 megapixel digital SLR camera that will allow me to take RAW photos instead of the more familiar JPG format, but then when I try to download them, my computer, which is also fairly new–not high-end, but still decent–can’t figure out what to do with them and shows them as blocks of colors. Neat, but not very informative about the buildings I took the pictures of. So, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with the merely “Acceptable” on this one and take my JPGs and convert them to enormous TIFF images that usually run in the vicinity of 10 mb per image–ouch!

Also, just how are SHPO folks supposed to know if the photo was taken with an acceptable “point-and-shoot” digital camera or a dreaded non-acceptable “disposable or single-use digital camera”?

And don’t get me started about “Acceptable” inks in printing these images and the “acceptable” printers to use–it all becomes so arcane and difficult that honestly, regular old non-digital black-and-white photography starts looking very tempting again. At least with that, you take your pictures, send your film off to the photoshop (since Jackson lost its last b/w processor a few years ago), tell them you want it processed and printed the old-fashioned way and then you magically get the prints back, all kosher and up to standard. And if you’re saying there aren’t any shops left anywhere, I’ll tell you the one I keep up my sleeve, Photolab in Berkeley, California–they do great work and make you look like a pro when you’re not really a pro. Pretty reasonable prices too, and you don’t have to worry about megapixels, dpi, single-use, inks, or whatever. Unfortunately, the NR office’s move to all-digital and non-archival will probably prove a self-fulfilling prophecy about reasonably priced black-and-white processing.

Well, lookee here, I’ve gone all “negative” again and I forgot to post my ratings at the top. Theodore, I hope you haven’t read this far :-) I started out positive–I had several positive sentences, or at least a few–so I think I should get a point or two for trying. Let’s say Negativity:3, Thoughtfulness:4. That gives me a total score of 7, which is pretty doggone good!

Anyway, my original purpose here today was to congratulate the NR office for joining Web 2.0 (or is it 3.0? 2.5? I’ve gotten confused). It can only be a good thing both for the National Register and for preservation more broadly to have our information and photos out there on the internet for the general public to see and easily search through. Public participation in preservation programs = good.

So congrats to the National Register, and we’ll see where all this is headed.

Categories: Historic Preservation, National Register

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