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Photo Sharing Sites as Digital Preservation Tools

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The following is a guest post by Barry Wheeler, Digital Projects Coordinator, Office of Strategic Initiatives.

The numbers are staggering – an estimated 2.5 billion people in the world have digital cameras!  They take perhaps 3.75 billion pictures each year.  And we love to share those pictures – hundreds of millions of pictures are uploaded to photo sharing sites each day! In addition to sharing, many people may wish to preserve their photographs for commercial, artistic, future family uses.  We know that we should keep multiple copies of any photographs we wish to preserve, including at least one copy in an offsite location.  So the question naturally arises – if we have uploaded those pictures can they be considered part of our digital preservation strategy?

"Make sure you save that one so Annie can see it when she grows up." Photo by Barry Wheeler.

We can’t recommend specific commercial products here, but in general, using a photo sharing site as a preservation copy repository has a lot of pluses. We may be selective uploading only our favorite images, and we may crop and process those images as we please.  Online sites frequently have a variety of tools to name, describe, and tag each picture.  Previous blogs and the Library’s Personal Archiving page provide much advice that seems perfect for uploading images to a well-documented site.  But, at least 3 major “ifs” are hurdles that must be overcome first. The following are some key issues to consider before choosing an online photo sharing site:


Is the online business stable, with a viable financial future?
This is a judgment call.  No one can predict the future of an internet site.  But at least two online photo sharing sites have gone out of business and a third changed its business model.  In these three cases, many photographers lost all access to their images.  They had from one to 14 days to retrieve their images – such brief periods that many photographers were unaware of the problem before the site was gone.  The photographers then have no recourse; all online sites appear to include a Disclaimer of Warranty in their terms and conditions text.  These companies then bear no responsibility for lost images and data if they go out of business or if their storage infrastructure fails.  The photographer bears all risks!

"Save that. He'll love it when he gets older." Photo by Barry Wheeler.

Does the online site retain (and back up) the photographer’s images for a very long time period?
In some cases, the user may be unaware that during the ingest process, the online site downsizes the images and strips all embedded metadata.  The site may then discard the original images, which saves storage space and speeds online presentation.  But the images the owner and site users view and download may be of significantly lower quality than the images originally uploaded.   Even if the original image is saved, there are numerous additional problems with retention.   What is the retention policy if the online site decides a user has violated the site terms and conditions?  If another user lodges a complaint? If a user site becomes inactive and isn’t accessed for a period of time?  If any site fees are not paid in a timely fashion?

Can designated people retrieve the photographs – with identifying captions, tags, and descriptions – easily?
An earlier blog has described how users should save and pass on usernames and passwords to sites so designated individuals may retrieve images at a later date.  But most site applications only support one-at-a-time image retrieval.  “Harvesting” all or a significant portion of a site may be difficult or impossible.  Often there are third-party applications that may be used to harvest a site – if the site terms and conditions allow this.  But what does the application retrieve? Will it include the captions and tags?  Will it be easy to use?  Will the download application be available and functional in the future?

Mother shows daughter photos from her husband on deployment in the military. Photo by Ingrid Barrantine.

If a site passes the business risks hurdle, we might find answers to the retention and risk hurdles by studying the online site terms and conditions, the site help files, and perhaps searching user group threads.  We may need to experiment by uploading, describing, and retrieving some sample images.  We may want to obtain a harvest application for testing – and note the time required to retrieve an image set.  Downloading a particularly large image set from cloud storage can take weeks!  Much research is needed to determine if a site might fit a user’s preservation requirements.


Comments (4)

  1. Barry:

    Another consideration that is important for anyone using embedded photo metadata is that many services (including one that rhymes with spacebook) do not preserve any of the user-supplied information in your image files and either strip it out on upload, or when images are reduced in size or resolution.

    In the case of “spacebook”, the only thing remaining are the colored pixels and the ICC profile. Even the date the image was taken is removed.

    So if you are considering a service as an image repository, do some testing to make sure that what you get out is what you put in — because it usually isn’t.

    For details on a survey to gather details on which services do what you to your photos, see

    Another point, for those that add “captions” and/or “tags” to images after they are uploaded and online; is to see if those are included in some form when you download the images. In most instances that text data will only be available online, on the page where the images are shown.


  2. Thanks David. You are correct and it is very worrisome if someone believes they can get all there data back. They have to read the fine print AND experiment before they learn what you have so accurately pointed out.

    By the way, I found your survey very helpful in doing the research for my post.

    – Barry

  3. Here’s one tool that might point the way to what is possible. BlueSLR has a “dongle” for sale that creates a link (via Bluetooth) between various smart phones and Nikon Cameras.

    If this wireless connection is open for use, then what would it take for the camera manufacturers to give access to modify the contents of a file that is then merged into the Exif (camera metadata) of an image at the time it’s created? At present that is what happens with a number of external GPS devices — they take the current single and push that information into the Exif milliseconds after the shutter is press and before the the file is written to the memory card.

    It might be at first that you have to write the info before you shoot (rather than after), but that’s a better situation than we have at present.


  4. Due to the size of most pro images we tend to use a free service called DropBox easily found if searched on engines and is extremely brilliant for online storage and accessible from any online pc worldwide but private. Thanks for your pointers too.

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