Pictures of CUNY is a digital archive of visual imagery – principally photographs – related to the City University of New York. Aggregating imagery from 25 campuses is, in itself, a big undertaking. CUNY is the largest of the urban universities in the United States. More than a quarter of a million students are enrolled. The earliest institutions that would eventually make up the confederation date to 1847. Almost all of the campuses have separate libraries – in some cases several. But each and every school also has at least one storeroom where there are cardboard boxes and file drawers of masses of uncatalogued photographs accumulated by successive generations of college administrators, school newspapers, student yearbook committees, and so on. This is to say that a lot of imagery winds up in the libraries, but a lot doesn’t. In the internet age a great number of the photographs of the life of the University are not housed in the institution but instead are found online. Corralling all of these materials is not possible, but surfacing the range and drawing attention to their existence is the principal purpose of the archive. One way to think of this project is as an archival promotion, an instigation or provocation to mount more sustained and methodical efforts.

CUNY has played a long-standing role as a center of intellectual investigation and a cultural hub for New York. It is a public institution whose graduates regularly assume leadership positions in the arts, government, and the educational institutions of both the City and the State of New York. The lives of these millions and millions of New Yorkers whom the City has educated or hosted on their campuses is rich. Much of this history has been visually documented. Pictures of CUNY demonstrates the importance of preserving this record and points toward the innovations that will spark the archival collections of the future.

Pictures of CUNY can be found on a publicly accessible website within the CUNY Academic Commons. The Commons, an open-source academic social network built on WordPress and Buddypress, is widely recognized as one of the most successful projects of its kind. It was created to foster a variety of forms of scholarly communication across the many CUNY campuses, but also as a means of extending access to the public that CUNY serves. Images on the archive can be easily discovered via common web search engines.

Each image in the Pictures of CUNY archive is presented with a title, descriptive captioning whenever possible, and a number of relevant tags. Formal metadata standards like The Dublin Core are forgone in favor of an open tagging system that allows for an organically evolving categorization of the archive. Viewers have the opportunity to leave a response below images in the archive using the WordPress commenting system. In response to new information from viewers, captioning and tagging can be added or subtracted.

Because CUNY is a public institution, nearly all the visual materials held in the campus archives are commissioned work for the University and are considered in the public domain. Much of the imagery that has already been uploaded was selected from the original materials held by various CUNY college libraries, but not all. Some individual campuses have built nascent online archives. The University administration has provided intermittent storage and access to digital archives built in an open-source dSpace repository. A few school libraries have made limited contributions to this University-wide archive, most have not. Pictures of CUNY has exhibited images from these existing collections, and in so doing, drawn attention to their existence.

Other materials found in publicly accessible web archives, such as Flickr, are used with permission or under a creative commons license. There is also a public submission form, which allows anyone to offer an image to be considered. These images are part of personal archives and represent a visual history of CUNY through the eyes of a public that the University serves. In using these materials, Pictures of CUNY becomes an extensible archive, which easily allows for contributions from the University and the public for which it exists.

Michael Smith & Eric Metcalf