How 150 Photographers Used Online Communities to Create a Unique Historical Resource

By Sam Roberts and Dr Laura Carletti

The History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive photographically documents advertising painted by hand onto brickwork. Typically faded, and dating anywhere from the late 1800s to the 1950s, these ‘ghostsigns’ represent local, commercial, social and artistic history.

Bile Beans, York (Katy Stoddard/HAT)

The archive was developed through online communities and the independent activities of over 150 photographers. In one year something was created that would have taken any one individual significantly longer.

In this piece, Sam Roberts and Dr Laura Carletti discuss the project methodology as an example of the collective construction of ‘history from below’. Sam Roberts led the archive’s development and Dr Laura Carletti researched it as a case study for her doctoral thesis on web-based grassroots initiatives for learning and knowledge enhancement.

Laura: As a visiting PhD researcher at the Horizon Research Institute (University of Nottingham), I discovered the Ghostsigns Archive during a study-visit to the History of Advertising Trust (HAT). I was intrigued by the project and its connection to my research interests but where did the idea originally come from?

Sam: I’d noticed ‘ghostsigns’ near my home in London and started photographing them, conscious that they wouldn’t last forever. I soon had a large photo collection and started writing a blog about them. Reactions to this blog and other collections on Flickr suggested wider interest than just my own. I thought that a permanent central archive would be a valuable resource.

Laura: Yes, the research survey findings show that many project contributors shared your desire to conserve ghostsigns. However, people approach them from different perspectives. Just a quarter of the survey participants declared a specific interest in ghostsigns, with most interested in ‘tangential’ areas (e.g. social history, advertising, graphic design).

Can you describe the approach you took in developing the HAT archive?

Sam: I’ve summarised the process in the following chart. This started in 2009, three years after I became interested in the subject and started writing my blog. The project was inspired by this interest and my desire to create something more permanent

Laura: The definition of ‘crowdsourcing’ is still debated but it emerged from my studies that the project had many features of ‘crowdsourcing’ initiatives. It was built through a call for contributions to an undefined audience, and created a new asset through the aggregation of distributed resources (e.g. photos, information). Were you aware that you were embarking on a ‘crowdsourcing’ process?

Sam: I hadn’t heard the term until late into the project. However, I did know that the only way to deliver the objective quickly was to harness others’ efforts. The methodology wasn’t informed by theoretical models of how crowdsourcing should be done. It was an experimental approach directed towards a clearly defined end.

One of the photo montages bringing together categories of signs and promoting the project.

The project had features of the History Workshop philosophy. The only barriers to involvement were having a camera and an email address. Although not demographically history from below, it was an egalitarian form of creating an historical archive. Also, the signs were produced by signwriters, craftsmen whose work is not often directly documented. The archive therefore represents a trade that is declining alongside the signs themselves.

Puck Matches, Leeds (John Grogan / HAT)

Laura: Yes, the subject matter is of the ordinary, mundane and ephemeral. The contributors recognised this and some cited it as a motivating factor. Others were enthused by the local nature of the history being preserved. Collective engagement was critical to the archive’s success, as was working with digital photos. The barriers to creating a ‘physical’ gallery are numerous, not least the immovable nature of the signs’ host buildings.

In developing the archive you formed a partnership with HAT. Why did you seek an institutional partner?

Sam: I thought photographers would be less willing to contribute to project run by one man and his blog. As the world’s largest archive of UK advertising, HAT were a natural fit to house what was then an omission from their collections. The partnership gave the project credibility and gave me the confidence to approach photographers.

Laura: Amateur digital collections and cultural institutions crowdsourcing are growing phenomena. Your partnership represents a rare example of crossover between grassroots- and organisationally-driven digital preservation initiatives. It was clearly successful in motivating people to contribute photos for the ‘greater good

Sam: At the archive’s launch there were c.150 photographers included, but more than that didn’t progress beyond adding images to the Flickr group. During the project I analysed the number of photos per photographer in my longlist from the Flickr group.

The ‘long tail’ was evident, with a handful of contributors responsible for lots of photos, alongside many photographers providing only one. However, many of these single contributions were unique i.e. the only photo of a particular sign. This added value to the archive by increasing its coverage of the subject.

Laura: Participation inequality in activities, such as this difference between the contribution levels, is a well-known characteristic in web-communities research. My own findings support your analysis. You mentioned that many photographers added photos to the Flickr group but didn’t subsequently give them to HAT. Why did this happen?

Sam: Adding an image to a Flickr group only takes the click of a button, whereas giving them to HAT required completing a form. I think this was a sufficient barrier, despite my efforts to chase people who expressed a general commitment to the project. Others consciously limited their involvement because of concerns over copyright and wishes to commercialise their own photography. My pragmatic approach was to accept that not everyone would go all the way. In some cases this resulted in excellent and unique images being omitted from the archive.

Laura: Quality control is an important consideration when developing crowdsourced archives. How did you manage this aspect of the project?

Sam: This occurred on two levels, the quality of the signs and the quality of the photos. The evaluation of both is highly subjective and limited resources meant that many signs had to be excluded. The archive therefore represents my own personal bias as I was responsible for the editing process. In hindsight I would have preferred a technical solution allowing photos to receive votes, thereby ‘promoting’ their position within the online galleries.

W. Chittock, Norwich (Keith Roberts/HAT)

Laura: You’ve had two years of hindsight now. What else would you do differently if you were starting again?

Sam: The main thing would be making it easier to contribute. Finding a solution to the dropout rate between the Flickr group and the HAT galleries, perhaps using creative commons licenses, might have led to even stronger national coverage.

The other two key things would be using geotagging and linking of photos to related historical sources. Geotagging would allow people to load a digital map and quickly find content of local relevance to them, perhaps taking a tour based on the archive. Linking to other related historical sources would add another layer to the collection by supplementing the photos with further research.

Both these ideas would require technical solutions and, as with all projects, limitations were imposed by the resources available. In the end the project achieved its aim. HAT continue to accept new material and the number of photographers involved, and signs captured, continues to grow.

Laura: To summarise, the project started as an amateur initiative but evolved into a collective digital preservation endeavour. This was made possible by the aggregative capacity of social media. Presently the distinctions between ‘experts’ and ‘amateurs’, ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ knowledge, content production and consumption are blurring, and social media provide the stage where amateur communities can proliferate. Grassroots digital collections are an increasing phenomenon, yet to be thoroughly evaluated and explored. However, they are clearly contributing information and knowledge to myriad niche areas. This project is a rare example where the ‘amateur’ and the ‘institution’ meet to develop a crowd-contributed digital collection.

The History of Advertising Trust Ghostsigns Archive is available here. For those interested in learning more, Sam Roberts’ Ghostsigns website has regular short articles about the topic and links to many other articles and resources of interest. Sam can be contacted here and Laura here.

Further Reading

Finnegan, R. (2005). Introduction: looking beyond the walls. In R. Finnegan, Participating in the Knowledge Society: Research beyond University Walls (pp. 1-20). Houndmills: Palmgrave Macmillan.

Holley, R. (2010). Crowdsourcing: How and Why Should Libraries Do It? D-Lib Magazine , 16 (3/4).

Oomen, J., & Aroyo, L. (2011). Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain: Opportunities and Challenges. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Communities and Technologies. 19 June -2 July, Brisbane (Australia).

Roberts, S. (2010) Ghostsigns: saving our hand painted advertising. The Ephemerist, Journal of the Ephemera Society, 148 (Spring)

Roberts, S. (2010) Ghostsigns: the archive. Ultrabold, Journal of the St Bride Library, 8 (Summer)

Roberts, S. & Groes, S. (2007) Ghost Signs: London’s Fading Spectacle of History. Literary London, issue 5 (2) (September)

Terras, M. (2010). Digital curiosities: resource creation via amateur digitization. Literary and Linguistic Computing , 25 (4), 425-438.

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