Visual culture is an important but vastly overlooked aspect of historical enquiry. Whilst there are lots of images in academic texts, they are usually overlooked because the images are presented as illustrations of the written history, rather than of sources of history themselves. Images can be key sources in understanding the daily lives of people from all backgrounds, and much like large quantities of text, they are more manageable in large amounts digitally.
Having primary source images online in database, such as the British Library image collection on Flickr, gives a much easier platform from which to engage with visual historical documents, regardless of geographic location. This resource is invaluable to those who cannot travel to access physical image archives, so the sources can still be used for varied reasons. Furthermore, because the images are under a Creative Common License, audiences are able to do anything with the images without repercussions.
The collection of over one million images came together in one place after the sections of the British Library had undergone Optical Character Recognition, in order for the texts to be placed in an online archive. However, as the pictures were not text, the programme was unable to recognize them, and filtered them out. The images were then lumped together, and for lack of ideas of what to do with them the British Library posted them online for the public to use.
Education has been a big factor in the digitization of these images; students of history have proclaimed that having images makes the past seem more accessible, as the worlds they are trying to visualize now take shape in the form of these images, and with the sources being available online, they can be accessed and used for education all over the world, spreading this visual culture.
There are a number of ways these images could be used in other ways to help teach about the past and help us as historians to understand it.
The database has a vast number of maps of all types available; to be able to place these maps in their modern context, and to be able to explore them interactively would be a useful tool to understand how the landscape has changed over time, as well as how the art of mapping itself has developed. This technology has been used in the past so it is not outside of the realm of possibility, and would be an excellent use of the large amount of various maps the British Library has in its archive.
Mapping by source/location
Another way a map could be harnessed is by placing images of buildings or landscapes, or even people in the context of where they are in the world. The subject(s) portrayed could be placed in their geographical context, allowing users to search for items by location, rather than having to know what the object is immediately. To further this technology, filters could be applied to sort the objects portrayed by what they are, be it portrait, landscape, object, and so on. Date filters could also be applied so images from certain periods can be searched for. This will help users that are looking for specific sources, therefore reducing the time spent aimlessly searching the database, but also for the casual user looking to make interesting connections between different sources. To take this idea even further, the map could be toggled to show not only the location of what the source is portraying, but the location of where the source was created. For example, a book written by a Spanish botanist with drawings of plants found in South America could be placed firstly in South America, where the plants are located, but on a different map be in Spain, where the source itself was printed. These two maps will show interesting juxtapositions about the creation of images themselves, and how these vary between type and date – especially interesting for new discoveries.
Another idea that revolves around mapping the images is grouping the images by the object or landscape they are portraying, and being able to view the same object from different perspectives, eras and artists. For example, having the different drawings of the Sphinx over time grouped together, and being able to click through them to see a 360 degree view of the landmark, or at least as wide a view as you could get with the images available for that landmark. This would give the viewer the opportunity to see the progression of drawing styles over time, and even the decay of the objects, especially when applied to landmarks that are now ruinous, a greater narrative of the object can be gathered from the perspective of sources from all over the globe.
Of course all of these methods have their drawbacks. If there aren’t enough images for a landmark, we are not going to be able to get a full 360 degree view of it, and for sources of unknown origin, or those that do not fit into a category, there is the issue of making them fit into the maps. Also, visual culture is limited to those without visual impairments. To make these sources accessible to those who cannot see them is another hurdle that needs to be crossed in the boundaries of making history accessible to the masses, but having these images free for all to use is a start in the right direction.