Photographic volunteers at the Nationaal Archief

Photographic volunteers

“We often make notes and look it up back home. Some things make us curious."

by-sa Beelden voor de Toekomst

Searching the past - a look behind the scenes at the Nationaal Archief’s photographic volunteers. A year ago, the Nationaal Archief began working with a group of volunteers who assign labels and keywords to the photographs that are being digitised. Josefien Schuurman, metadating team leader for the project Images of the Future, explains how it’s done.

What exactly does the work involve?

“The volunteers are given a collection or part of one in order to check the information that relates to the photographs or add it to the database. Most of the photographs in our collection already have a label but it is often incomplete or inaccurate. Verifying the labels and keywords primarily involves a lot of searching. Google is the most common search tool used, along with other specific websites such as about politicians or IISG, which has a database that includes information about 10,000 industrial disputes. For example, there is a Wikipedia page that features every footballer who ever played in the Dutch national team. You can often gain a lot of information from newspaper reports from the period in question. The Leeuwarder Courant is currently one of the few Dutch newspapers which have opened up the whole of its archive online. I usually leave it up to the volunteers to decide whether a specific source is reliable or not. Sometimes it is impossible to find sufficient information about a particular photograph and you just have to give up. If you have found nothing on the internet after five or ten minutes of searching, it’s a shame, but there’s nothing you can do about it. What the volunteers have to do is label the essence of the photograph; they do not need to give an exhaustive description.”

“If you have no affinity with history or photography, then it's no fun at all.”

“In the Memorix database program, volunteers have to complete a form, in which the main fields are: ‘report/series’ which you can use to link several photographs together; ‘description’ which is about the photograph itself and if possible the context in which it was taken; and finally, the field ‘keywords’ is designed to make it significantly easier to find the photographs.”

“If you are sure about something, but are unable to find a reliable source, you add the word ‘probably’ to the description.”

“In the first instance, it is my job to check everything that is produced. I'm quite strict about this. The volunteers must adhere to the guidelines. It takes a while to develop the knack, but it soon becomes automatic. But some volunteers find rooting about on the internet searching for things far too enjoyable and don’t know when to stop. Metadating is different from conducting research. We add information to the photographs in order to enable others to research them more effectively. There are occasions when someone prefers not to work on a particular collection for emotional reasons, for example on photographs from World War II.”

“I recently added the keyword ‘self-aggrandisement’ to a photo featuring the presentation of the Televizier-ring award, but it was not allowed. Our job is to describe history, not to judge it.”

How many photographs are the volunteers describing?

“During the course of the seven-year project, we plan to tackle 58,000 photographs. Depending on their complexity, the volunteers usually metadate between 20 and 40 photographs per day. On average, five volunteers work together, five hours per day, four days a week. The work requires so much concentration that working eight hours a day is too long.”

“We often make a note of something we want to look up at home. Some things arouse our curiosity and we are keen to find out more.”

Who are the volunteers?

“Most of the approximately 25 volunteers who have been working on the project since the start are older people or people interested in history who want to gain work experience in that area. Interestingly, most of them have an academic background and a particular interest in photography and history as a result of their work or qualifications.”

“Most of the volunteers have a keen interest in language and syntax anyway. Here we act as a thesaurus for each other.”

“Some of them have a technical knowledge of photography, enabling them to recognise specific procedures, while others have a background in history. All of them have very wide interests. They do not need to have specific knowledge about the subject matter of the photographs in order to work on metadating, but they do need computer skills. We ask our volunteers to sign up to the project for a minimum period of one year. They are not paid for their work, but they do receive a travel allowance. They are also permitted to take part in activities at the Nationaal Archief.”

“For example, we also have an expert in the World War I who has single-handedly metadated the whole World War I collection.”

On the day of the interview, we met several volunteers who represented an excellent cross-section of the metadating team. Wim (77) is a publisher by profession and has also labelled his own collection of photographs for inclusion in the collection at the National Museum of Ethnology (Museum van Volkenkunde) in Leiden. Annemarie: “My husband is not particularly good with computers, so we complement each other perfectly. I am really glad that I learned all about computers at work, otherwise we would never have been able to do this.” Christel (46) is a librarian at the Netherlands Architecture Institute and a freelance image editor. Nevertheless, she still finds time to work as a volunteer one day a week. Charles Dufour (67) studied Mining and worked as a geologist in Indonesia, Yemen and the Persian Gulf. He later opened a bookshop, specialising in travel books and mountain climbing. He has also metadated a large collection of his own photographs.”

“For this type of work, you need to have an academic curiosity and a lot of patience.”

How do you find the volunteers?

“Putting out a call on the websites of the Nationaal Archief, Images for the Future and the image database along with a feature in the Nationaal Archief magazine was all that was needed. These sources provide a constant stream of volunteers. All of them are people interested in our subjects and the medium of photography.”

Why do they do this work?

“Although the volunteers are not paid for what they do, they are highly motivated to do a good job. The main reasons why they do it are the social contacts it offers, their interest in history and photography and the feeling of doing something useful that is of benefit to everyone.” Wim: “Doing this work is an excellent way of improving your general knowledge. For example, today I discovered that Ajax played Arsenal in 1970 and I also know who won (he laughs).” His wife Annemarie adds: “As well as enhancing your own knowledge, putting this knowledge to wider use is another good reason for doing this. It would be such a shame if the knowledge we have acquired during our lives were simply to be lost.”

“We have tried to persuade our friends to join us. But they seem put off by the painstaking process of labelling, which they consider to be tedious. Whereas we find a precise description highly gratifying, others might find the whole process too fiddly.”

“My friends laugh at me when I tell them that I do voluntary work, because they imagine I spend my time wiping people's bottoms. Most of the people I know are probably still too young to do voluntary work and preoccupied with their own home lives, careers and children. But I enjoy it and I have the time to devote to it.”

Why is the process of metadating not automated?

“Computers are capable of a lot, but humans have skills and knowledge that a computer does not yet have. It is possible to use software for metadating (face, building and text recognition), but the technology is actually still in its very early stages compared with the capacities for interpretation and association that humans have. However, there are pilot programmes to test these techniques and computers are used to process the keywords. This is necessary because we currently do not have a keyword thesaurus that matches our collection.”

“For example, we recently labelled a photo album on which other volunteers had worked, and it is noticeable that everyone has a different style of labelling.”

“As part of the Images to the Future project, we developed guidelines for metadating photographs. Part of the project involves researching different thesauruses to see if they can be used for our collections. A thesaurus is a reference work that contains keywords and synonyms. We expect to be able to achieve a conversion later this year. For example, the Art and Architecture thesaurus is available online. Our volunteers check their keywords in that, but it is often too specialised in art history. Other options include the libraries’ Joint Keyword Thesaurus, Spaarnestad Photo’s Codec system and the GTAA from the Institute for Sound and Vision. Metadating is a process that requires a lot of careful consideration and weighing up of options. You have to develop an instinct for knowing what are good keywords and descriptions and what are not. People become more experienced the longer they work here.”

Which system does the Nationaal Archief use for data entry?

“We work with the web-based application Memorix from Pictura, which is also used by our partner Spaarnestad Photo, the Nederlands Fotomuseum and many regional archives. It is no longer completely up to date and it only just meets our needs. Fortunately, a different version with new functionalities is set to be launched soon.”

Are you satisfied with working with volunteers?

“We are extremely enthusiastic about it. This may be because they work with such enthusiasm and commitment on the labelling process. You only do the job if you really find it enjoyable.”

All the quotations in this article originate from Josefien Schuurman and the volunteers Christel Leenen, Annemarie Schüller-Vels Hein, Wim Schüller and Charles Dufour.


Marcel Oosterwijk