I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how students can begin to sort through the huge databases of historical images now available online. Image mining is still in its infancy, although already we are starting to see some interesting work being done in the field. This work promise to eventually let us do what might be called forensic image mining where one takes an image of, say, a face and then sends out a search looking for other iterations of that face. Much of the work in image mining is still highly technical, but if you are interested, a good place to start might be the work of Thomas Deselaers.
Until efforts such as Deselaers’ bear fruit, we will remain dependent on the metadata added to images to help us locate what we want. Because the kind of metadata we want is generally added only to images posted online by libraries and archives, mining images posted online by the crowd will remain a difficult task for at least a few more years.
For just a minute though, let’s imagine what it will be like five years from now when our students can find images that they want or need through sophisticated image mining techniques. What will they do with those images once they’ve analyzed them?
I’ve always felt that writing about images was a bit like dancing about architecture (to paraphrase Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, or Steve Martin depending which Google hit you believe). Describing the content of an image is all well and good, but images are, well, visual, and so creating text about a visual medium removes us one full step (at least) from the thing itself. So why not ask our students to create history with the visual sources they find online?
Already many history teachers do just that by asking students to create history collages in the younger grades or poster presentations in later grades/college about their research. But even these, worthy as they may be, are static representations of the past and once created are difficult to alter. Each year more and more tools emerge online to let students begin to play with images and how they might present them. Just to give one example, our Object of History project here at CHNM lets students create a “visual presentation” drawn from material found on the site. For all its strengths, this particular module exemplifies what won’t work when we can begin to do real image mining–students using the Object of History project can only work with the material in the site, not with material they find elsewhere.
Often I find intriguing ideas from the world outside of academia that seem as though they might be ported over into what we are trying to do in education. Take just a minute and look at the website polyvore.com (thanks to my wife Susan for pointing this one out to me). This site, devoted to women’s fashion, lets its users create “sets” from a database of images that are aggregated from the websites of retailers. Information about each image (we might call it metadata) is embedded in the larger image (we might call it a poster) and to the right you find a fuller description of each item (we might call that an annotation). Creators of these sets can add content from their own images as well.
The image sets on this site then move up and down in popularity based on user feedback, are categorized in a wide variety of ways, and users interact with one another around the sets…a different spin on social networks than what we are used to thinking of in education.
Imagine a world where students can use a tool like polyvore.com and the images available to them are mined from the web (rather than from a discrete set of library or archival sites). What might they create when they are making history in this way? How might their presentation of visual information change the way we think about the past? How might their interactions with one another around such visual creations change the ways they think about the past? I for one am looking forward to such a world.