Indexing Photographs

Prepared by Stephanie Willen Brown
Library Director
Springfield (Mass.) Union-News and Sunday Republican
Visual Edge '98 Archive Program
September 1, 1998

Introduction | Different Kinds of Searching | Keywording & Free Text | Advantages & Disadvantages | Examples | Conclusion


  It is essential to have several ways to define the activity a photograph describes because describing the exact meaning of a picture is very difficult. When indexing works of art or music, this is especially tough, because only terms added by a librarian can be used to search the database. Newspaper photograph databases are easier to search because the cutline field is a wonderful source of information. The cutline usually has most of the information relevant to the image, including names of subjects, location, and a description of the activity.

  In this presentation, I will (briefly!) discuss newspaper photograph indexing, the use of keywords or free text, and review several examples of indexed newspaper pictures. I have pulled 18 photographs from the Springfield Union-News to demonstrate how both keywords and free text indexing might be applied to a variety of situations.

Different Kinds of Searching

  Searching the cutlines of hundreds of thousands of photographs to retrieve one of the principal of a grammar school would be relatively easy: the searcher – librarian, reporter, editor, photographer – would simply type in the name and a small number of photographs would likely be retrieved (assuming the person is not a trouble maker or married to a prominent figure). However, searching for an appropriate photograph of the mayor of the dominant city in a newspaper’s coverage area, Springfield in our case, would likely retrieve hundreds of images.

  And what if you needed photographs of golf courses to accompany a story about the proliferation of golf courses in your area? You would have to remember the names of all the golf courses in the area and do a complicated, nested search. — Franconia, Crestview, the Orchards — You might forget the name of one or two of them, or you might retrieve photographs of events taking place at the "19th hole" of an area course.

  A further curve thrown into the photo indexing mix is that different types of people — photographers, librarians, editors, and the general public — will need to search the database. Each group will need to retrieve different kinds of pictures:

o        photographers might want to see if a particular scene had already been shot; (images of Taste of Holyoke, for example)

Indexing is the Answer

  Applying subject terms to each photograph will greatly aid in retrieval. Ideally, each image will be assigned two to five subjects, addressing the central news aspect of the picture. This results in a richer description of a photograph. Indexers should add words that are not in the cutline to enhance the value of the subject field. A picture of a defendant in a murder trial, for example, would be assigned the keywords Murder and Trial. Either one used by itself is not enough to describe a photo of a defendant charged of murder who is on the witness stand, though both are correct and useful. But together, they accurately express the concepts demonstrated in the photograph.

Keywording vs. Free text

Introduction | Different Kinds of Searching | Keywording & Free Text | Advantages & Disadvantages | Examples | Conclusion | Home

  We will discuss two different ways of adding subject ideas to a photograph database: keywording and free text. I’ll describe, and show examples, of each.

  "Keywording" refers to adding terms from a controlled vocabulary to a database of photographs to aid later retrieval. The most important component of keywording is the notion of a controlled vocabulary, a specific set of words from which index terms can be taken. Keywording is the a traditional means of indexing photographs, and is taught as Indexing in library school. A photograph of children on a swing, for example, might be given the keywords CHILD; PLAYING; and SUMMER.

  "Free text" indexing, on the other hand, does not rely on a controlled vocabulary. Instead, it is more like free association: the indexer looks at the photograph and uses her imagination to describe what it is "about." A photograph of children on a swing, for example, could be "about" a hot summer afternoon; children or kids; swinging or playing; brothers, perhaps, if the children are related; smiling or laughing; and having fun.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  The primary benefit to using keywords is that the controlled vocabulary makes the indexing more precise. Further, it is easier to search on a keyworded database because you can choose from a finite list of keywords to frame your search. On the other hand, it takes longer to add terms using this system, because the indexer has to look at a long list of keywords and thesaurus entries for each picture. The indexing itself is likely to be less descriptive because only use certain words can be used to describe photograph. And it takes longer to search, because seachers need to look at thesaurus and keyword list. This picture of a small child feeding sheep is an easy image to keyword: ANIMAL, CHILD, FARM

  It is easier and quicker to index photographs using the free text method. The indexer simply free associates with all themes or items in photograph. As a result, the indexing is likely to be more descriptive because terms are unique to each photograph. However, because of the lack of vocabulary control, indexers could use synonyms to describe similar images (homicide & murder; jogging & running; parachuting & skydiving; protest & demonstration). If an indexer uses "running" to describe a photo of someone training for a marathon , but the searcher thinks of it as "jogging" and enters that term, the specific photograph may not be retrieved. This image of a principal moving into new office would be a good candidate for free text indexing, and a bad candidate for keywording. Keywords: SCHOOL? WORKING? TEACHER? When really: sunlight; office; moving; summer; start of new school term; starting a new job; unpacking; mess; bookshelves.


Introduction | Different Kinds of Searching | Keywording & Free Text | Advantages & Disadvantages | Examples | Conclusion | Home

  I will review 3 photographs from the Springfield Union-News, pointing out how keywording and free text indexing might differ. I will also note some other news photo indexing issues that might arise. You can play along at home, using the sample keyword list and the web page of images.

o        Stained Glass — Keywords: CRAFT. Note that the word "wedding" is in the cutline, but this picture is not "about" a wedding. If you relied strictly on cutline text for your searching, you would receive many false hits like this one.

Group activity

  Here’s a list of sample keywords to be used by the Springfield Union-News. Let’s do the keywording first for each picture, then talk about how each would be indexed using free text, or free association.

First group

o        Children dancing — Keywords: DANCE, CHILD, GROUP. Would you add ETHNIC to indicate that there are differences among the dancers? Would the word MULTICULTURAL (which doesn’t exist in our list) be a better choice? How will this sensitive issue be addressed??

o        Elderly learning computer — Keywords: COMPUTER, TEACHER, ELDERLY. This looks like a demonstration of a new system, but in our keyword list DEMONSTRATION is used for protests. Would you add something about the ethnic background of the trainer? (what if you wanted to do a story about the racial breakdown of computer users?)

o        Politicians schmoozing — Keywords: POLITICIAN, ANNUAL, AMUSEMENT, PARK. Other things to think about: who else is in the photo behind Harshbarger’s shoulder? What is the political relationship between the two men? For free text: laughing, schmoozing, summer, casual.

o        Three photos with a keyword of POLICE. Interior construction; arrest; sketch of a suspect. Illustrates the need for keywords in addition to the word POLICE.

§         Construction of police office — Keywords: POLICE, INTERIOR, CONSTRUCTION. Might want to add: stepladder.

Advanced indexing

o        Tomato farming — Keywords: FARM, SUMMER. These don’t get at what this picture is "about:" picking tomatoes in the middle of summer. Family farm, grandmother and grandson.


Introduction | Different Kinds of Searching | Keywording & Free Text | Advantages & Disadvantages | Examples | Conclusion | Home


  In this presentation, I reviewed newspaper photograph indexing, the use of keywords or free text to accomplish the indexing, and reviewed several examples of indexed newspaper pictures. Because keyword indexing is more controlled, it allows for less flexibility in describing what a photograph is "about." On the other hand, because it uses a controlled vocabulary, keywording permits for more precise image retrieval. Free text indexing, in contrast, is easy to index and allows a great deal of flexibility when assigning terms. Its drawback is that there is a greater chance to lose photographs if subjects are not applied consistently. I have used 18 photographs taken from the Springfield Union-News to demonstrate how both keywords and free text indexing might be used in a variety of situations. At this point, I suspect I will use keywords to index my database, but I believe in the advantages of free text indexing as well. You can keep both this presentation, and the photographs themselves as a practice for your own photo indexing projects.


Introduction | Different Kinds of Searching | Keywording & Free Text | Advantages & Disadvantages | Examples | Conclusion | Home

Archiving in News Libraries

Last Updated: 04/9/2001
Carolyn Edds