New York Public Library's Flickr stream

Broad Street Looking Toward Wall Street, 1916

Broad Street Looking Toward Wall Street, 1916 Photograph: Berenice Abbott

The Commons project is Flickr’s ongoing attempt to make publicly held photos more accessible—and to have the nerdstorm of the Internet rain down its knowledge on those pictures, with users adding comments and notes. So far, it’s a big success: The Library of Congress has posted nearly 5,000 photos, and more and more cultural heritage institutions have been joining in. Last month, the New York Public Library got in on the action, posting around 1,300 of its photos (, and sweet zombie Jesus, it’s fantastic.

The 16 sets of photos include images of early modern dance, Egypt, Japan in the late 19th century, cinema from 1912--14 and cyanotypes of British algae, among others, but my favorites are the pictures of New York. The shots from Ellis Island are fascinating but not sentimental. Berenice Abbott’s famous “Changing New York” series perpetually absorbs new meaning. And the library’s documentation of its own history, in a set called “NYPL: Work with Schools,” shows that even in 1910 there were kids as geeky as I am, climbing all over each other to get to more books.

The images themselves are of course engrossing, but maybe more interesting is what projects like this say about the future democratization of access. I like knowing I’m not just looking at old-timey photos: I’m also looking at a coming attraction for how people will be sharing information in the years to come.