I work with people across the Smithsonian to add photos to the Smithsonian Flickr Commons photostream. Occasionally, something stands out in the daily summary of comments and tags I receive. Sometimes, it’s an exchange between Flickr members sparked by a single photo, such as this one around the portrait of journalist and adventurer, Henry Stanley, and his servant. Other times, I notice a single person furiously tagging and researching a group of photos. It makes me wonder who they are and why the connection to the photo set. For the Women in Science photo set we released in March for Women's History Month, that person was Flickr member, pennylrichardsca, or Penny Richards. She correctly identified British botanist, Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker in this portrait and gave us leads on a few others. Working on the web, our visitors are a mystery except through statistics, usability surveys, and email inquiries. With this post, I am launching a ‘meet and greet’ of sorts so we can get to know you and find out why you enter our virtual doors.
Tell us about you. I'm Penny Richards. I live in Redondo Beach, CA, I'm a mom at home with two kids in school, and a research scholar affiliated with UCLA's Center for the Study of Women. I also teach as a volunteer in the local art education program, and blog a lot.
How did you find out about the Flickr Commons and why do you spend time there? I think I ran across Flickr Commons right when it first started. I had been using the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress site already, writing about some of the images for the Disability Studies, Temple U. blog. When the Bain Collection started appearing on Flickr, I was glad to point it out to our blog audience. I hope more of them will help with the disability history images, because that's my main field (I'm on the board of the Disability History Association-- thus the [Disability History] Flickr group). I love the crowdsourcing aspect of Flickr Commons--being part of a worldwide group of users tagging and contextualizing the images is great fun, and appeals to my sense of history as a community process. I don't get to be in archives as much as I did as a grad student, so this is my substitute. And if I find something to share with other disability historians, all the better. For example, I was on the editorial board for the soon-to-be-released _Encyclopedia of American Disability History_ (Facts on File 2009), and was able to suggest a number of images from the Commons for use in the Encyclopedia.
What is your favorite Smithsonian photo on the Commons? My favorite Smithsonian photo in the Commons? Hmmm....I've really enjoyed the portraits of women scientists and artists that went up recently. For my collage needs, the striking portraits like Mildred Adams Fenton or Peggy Bacon are perfect. But I have other favorites for browsing: I really love the Belize Larval Fish Group, and my great-grandfather was a postman so I'm drawn to the series on postal carriers, and the Thomas William Smillie set is mesmerizing.
How did you go about digging up information on the Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker portrait? Any advice for other people embarking on photo research? Kathleen Mary Drew turned up in Ogilvie and Harvey's invaluable reference, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. That's on Google Books, so it was searchable, not too much detective work involved.
What are your favorite photos to research? My favorite photos to research are women's portraits, or images from suffrage parades and rallies. If a woman is only listed as "Mrs. John Smith," that's just begging me to find her a real first name, for starters... ;) I was glad to solve the mystery of the women in badges. Mrs. Diehl and Mrs. Gillespie turned out to be policewomen in 1913 Philadelphia. Linking up the various de Acosta sisters was fun. Working through changes in how Chinese names are transliterated was part of the fun on this one. And I loved that a relative of Eva Morrison came around to tell her story here.
Tell us about your craft projects with photos from the Flickr Commons! As you noted, I also use the images in collage projects, like my "upcycled handbags." Those started when I had a nice purse with an ugly stain. Painted it, added some words and images, and it was fun to carry again. Then I wanted to make more, and the best images to use were from the Commons--no known copyright restrictions, and a lot of excellent subjects like suffragettes and aviators. I like to know real stories behind the faces on my bags, so I avoid vintage images of models or unknown portraits, which tend to be a bit cliched and too pretty for me. I like to be able to say "she was a civil-rights activist in the 1910s" or "she was the fourth woman in the world to have a pilot's license.
Note: This interview has been edited from its original.