click to view original photo

Playing Tag: The Easy, High-Tech Way For You To Search (and improve!) Archival Records

'Tagging', 'crowdsourcing' . . . sound futuristic and complicated? These words are just new ways of saying 'labeling' and 'the general public providing information.' Find out how the use of tagging at NARA and the Library of Congress can help your research, as well as how you can contribute your own knowledge.


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 731 (approx.)
Labels: Beginner's Guide 
Short URL:

"Tagging", "crowdsourcing" . . it may sound futuristic and complicated, but these words are really just new ways of saying "labeling" and "members of the general public providing information." Find out how the use of tagging at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Library of Congress (LoC) can help your research, as well as how you can contribute your own knowledge.

Many family researchers are already familiar with the concept of tagging photos, either through their genealogical software (Family Tree Builder offers this feature, for example) or through Facebook. If you are a FamilySearch indexer, a contributor to Wikipedia, or even if you've responded to a company's request for comments on a new product, you have been a part of crowdsourcing.

Tagging with NARA's Online Public Access (OPA)

In June of 2011, NARA introduced tagging abilities to its Online Public Access (OPA) prototype. Users searching the catalog can also tag items with keywords or labels they feel are relevant. "We expect that crowdsourcing tagging will enhance the quality of the content and make it easier for people to find what they are looking for," wrote NARA chief archivist David S. Ferriero on his Archivist of the United States blog in August.

Ferriero also gave some examples of tagged items in the OPA: a photo of a ship in Wisconsin where a user added the specific location "Manitowoc" and a reproduction of Norman Rockwell's "Freedom of Speech" painting, where a user added the tag "Four Freedoms", the name of the series to which "Freedom of Speech" belongs.

Users can now search by tags in the OPA advanced search. And if a tag shows up on an image you're interested in, clicking on the tag brings up everything else tagged with that word or phrase. And what if you come across a document, photo, or description that you know something extra about? Just register as an OPA user (it's free) and click on the tagging box on the left-hand side of the screen to make your own tag.

Your tags appear the day they are approved and NARA will index them overnight. NARA's tagging policy forbids tags that reveal too much personal information (phone numbers and email addresses, for example), tags that are off-topic or promote services or businesses, or tags that are abusive or offensive. In an online discussion that past July, NARA's social media manager Jill James said the only tags NARA had to delete thus far were a few "test" tags.

Searching Online Photos from the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has had a home on photo-sharing site Flickr since 2007. The LoC's Prints and Photographs division has over 14 million images, with more than 1 million available online. Placing the collection on Flickr was a way for the LOC to both share history with digital users, as well as a way to gain more information on the images it had. "The identifying information is appreciated," the LoC writes on its Flickr profile. "Many of our old photos came to us with very little description."

Groups of photos in the Library's Flickr collection include "Civil War Faces," "News in the 1910s," and "1930s-40s in Color." Anyone can browse the thousands of photos by going to Again, if you come across one image relevant to you, try clicking on the tags attached to that photo to see what else pops up.

To tag the Library's photos on Flickr, you must create a basic Flickr account, which is free. Like NARA, the Library also has guidelines on posting and comments: nothing offensive, irrelevant (like a pitch for a business) or anything that contains personal information such as home addresses or phone numbers.

Despite reviewing tags, there is still the question of how reliable a crowdsourcing project is. People may post information or tags that pass the review process, which are still deliberately or mistakenly incorrect. Proponents of crowdsourcing argue that these errors are corrected by others in the crowd, since the vast majority of people are interested in providing and reading correct information.

At the same time, anyone with corrections on the Library's tags is invited to contact the Library either through Flickr or through the agency's Ask a Librarian service to provide correct information with proof. NARA contact information can be found at In the meantime, the best defense is a good offense - so check your facts, add your knowledge and start tagging!

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles