“I just want to use it; I don’t want to know how it works.” – Unknown
My Signal colleagues and I give out digital-preservation advice based on our research, our experiences and our understanding of best practices. We also pay attention to questions from the general public, with whom we interact at events such as the National Book Festival, Personal Archiving Day at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s Saving Our African American Treasures. By far, most of the questions we get asked are about digital photos and we expertly answer almost every question.
Our main concern is for everyone to back up and care for their digital photos. But we’re also eager to explain the innards of digital photos. We talk about file formats and the effects of compression. We explain photometadata and show EXIF examples. We’ve made an informational video about photometadata, written about our NDIIPP project with the Stock Artists Alliance, and, as part of that project, interviewed photometadata evangelist David Riecks .
Aside from encouraging people to back up their digital photos, we also push for them to add descriptions. And that part is tricky.
We make the analogy that adding a description to a digital photo is like writing on the back of a paper photo. But honestly, writing on the back of a paper photo is a breeze by comparison. And there is a simple question people ask us to which we don’t have a simple answer: “How?”. Because it’s not easy. In fact, it’s much more difficult than it should be.
Photography professionals routinely use photo-editing software to add photometadata to their digital photos for copyright and business reasons. To them, the process is simple, mainly because they’ve mastered it. As the saying goes, “The obvious is already known.” However, the process is challenging for a newcomer.
The steps are usually a variation on: starting the software, opening the photo, selecting the menu options File > Get Info and typing text into fields. To complicate matters though, the field names and terminology are maddeningly similar and possibly different from program to program. Is “caption” the same as “description”? Which fields should I use? Which fields equate to writing on the back of a paper photo? And to further complicate the process, depending on the software, a description added to a photo might not actually get embedded into the photo file; it might be visible only with the software you used to embed the description. Our goal is to embed the description so that it always remains stored in the photo file, no matter where the photo goes or what you view the photo on or with.
The larger problem is not so much with the photo-editing software. The problem is requiring people to use photo-editing software at all to add descriptions.
Given the choice, most of us would not bother. Or we would put that chore at the end of our long list of chores. Library staff found from interactions with the public that it’s common for people to leave their photos on their smart phones or on SD cards, so requiring people to struggle with photo-editing software in order to add descriptions is not realistic.
The encouraging news is that it shouldn’t take much technologically to simplify the process, to maybe have a button on the camera that says, “Add Description.” Or a smart-phone app that has the same function. Click a button, display a Description field for the photo, type in text and you’re done.
David Riecks said that the idea is not new. “I raised this same argument at the first International Photo Metadata Conference in 2007,” said Riecks. Nothing came of it though, even though there were a group of engineers from major camera manufacturers in attendance. Riecks said that, still, it is up to the manufacturers to add this feature and make it interoperable with the current metadata schemas.
And if you send a digital photo to me into which you’ve added a description, I should be able to see that description as easily as I can see the title of a song playing on my smart phone. It’s just text embedded into a file.
Duraspace’s Michelle Kimpton made a somewhat-related point about how consumers will accept a new technology — in this case cloud storage — when technologists make it easy to use. She said, “These (cloud storage) technologies will become simple to use. And….when people see the value of cloud technology and that it’s drop-dead easy, then it will take off.”
The same could be said for an “Add Description” feature. People might be more inclined to add descriptions if it just takes the push of a button and a moment of typing. Of course, not everyone will add descriptions, just as not everyone writes descriptions on paper photos. But it’s nice to have the option.
The idea of enabling camera users to add descriptions via the camera is not new. Almost 100 years ago, a major camera manufacturer included an autographic feature on special cameras, enabling users to write captions on film. For whatever reason, that feature never became popular. Maybe because it was easier to write on the paper photo. But at least the company did develop the feature in response to a need.
Riecks points out that manufacturers react to what people voice and what the market expects, and manufacturers seek out suggestions for future improvements. He encourages people to consider contacting their camera’s manufacturer and simply asking for the feature. He has that contact information, and more, listed on the photometadata.org blog.
At the Library of Congress, we encourage people to add descriptions to photo files as a good archival practice. And we hope that camera manufactures will implement this feature soon so that all photo takers can easily add descriptions to their photos. As consumers and institutions accumulate photos and pass them along to others, those who receive the photos will appreciate the embedded information.
Modern digital cameras are amazing and getting better all the time. I took this photo of the river near my house using my smart phone. It took just a few moments of poking and tapping at the screen controls to zoom, adjust the lighting, focus and shoot. And the photo is as good as anything I’ve taken on my “good” camera.
Using this photo, I’d like to conduct an experiment with you, dear reader. I used photo-editing software to embed Library of Congress attribution information into the photo. But I also embedded in the “Description” field a quote from Benjamin Franklin. Please download the photo and let me know:
1) if you can see the quote
2) which software or website you used to display the embedded information
3) whether you are an amateur or professional photographer.
Your experiences and input may help move the Add Description feature closer to a reality.