Photo Libraries in the Abstract

I took a little time over the past few weeks to get my Photos library in order. This was a long term project for a few reasons. First, I did not have a solid day to devote to it, so I engaged in the work here and there. Nor was there any rush, so I could attend to it a little at a time during lunch or in the evenings, as time permitted, without the pressure of a deadline.

Second, I needed to wrap my head around the idiosyncrasies of Apple’s Photos app — as one must do with any program. In most blog posts that address photo management, this would be the paragraph where I would discuss the app’s shortcomings. But, as Rene Ritchie reminds us, every computer and every app require a series of compromises between promise, practice, and the possible. So, while I would like some more granular control over the facial recognition scanning (I would especially like the option to identify a person in a photo rather than just say that it is not a particular person when the scan misidentifies someone during the confirm new photos process.) Yes, I recognize that, in between Google and Facebook, there are plenty of images of me and my family out there. That doesn’t mean I want to add to it. Nor does it mean I think others are foolish for taking advantage of Google’s storage and computing power — so long as they understand the exchange they are making.

Second and a half, I spent a good bit of time in some obscure parts of the application and its library because I needed to convert a whole bunch of older videos. The Photos app does not play well (or at all) these older AVI and MOV files and I wanted them in my library, rather than sending them off to VLC to play after I made it to a desktop or laptop computer. After some experimentation, I decided to convert them using Handbrake (using my Mac Mini) and then import the converted files and manually edit the date and location metadata.

And third, I spent some time considering the philosophy underpinning my personal photo library.

As an English Professor, thinking about the philosophy of a library is something of an occupational hazard. A portion of my research involves considering primary texts and unpublished materials — ephemera, marginalia, letters, and the notes and notebooks of W. B. Yeats and his wife, George.[1] And while I doubt that the scholars of the future will be sifting through my digital life in the hope of developing a deeper understanding of my thought, there is a decent chance that descendents might be looking through these pictures to lean about their family’s past when I am no longer there to explain what they are pictures of, who is in the pictures, and why they are there.

What came as a conceptual surprise were the pictures that I remembered but were not there — not because of a corrupted file but because I remembered the image from social media rather than from my library. I started to download some of these from friends’ Facebook pages and bumped up against two problems. First, the resolution was less than impressive. What looked perfectly fine on a phone did not scale well when appearing on my television screen.[2]

The second was the philosophical question. The pictures may be of me and of events that took place at my home, but were they mine. I don’t mean in the sense of copyright. My friends shared these images publicly. I do mean that placing them in my digital library carries implications of a sort. A picture of friends at my house implies that I took the photo in a way that placing a printed photo in a physical album does not because the digital file serves as both print and negative.

These are the kind of questions that those who try to figure out the significance of a piece of paper in a folder in a Special Collections library: What does this letter tell us? What is this note written on the back? How does it situate the document in the context of my research question.

Many of you will likely find it a silly question. After all, pictures can be seen exclusively as personal mementos — images to invoke memories we might otherwise leave buried. And it is difficult to argue on behalf of some genealogically-minded descendent four generations in the future. But what we choose to put into our own collection matters and the act of collecting is driven, in part, by why we did or did not put them there.

In addition, my philosophizing has applicability beyond the data on my hard drive and floating in redundant cloud storage. My decisions about what is appropriate for my own library are the same kind of decisions I should be making about the files on social media. Those photos — some, but not all, posted by me — are part of someone else’s public library. Privacy controls let me control some of this, but not all. In essence, photos of me taken by others are as private as the most permissive settings chosen by my friends. That shifts the boundaries of where public and private memory begins and end. 

It also means that Apple, Facebook/Instagram/What’sApp, Google, Twitter, and WeChat (to name only five) have become the librarians of my life and they are handing out free library cards for those who wish to read the rough draft of the story of my life. 

And it is a surprisingly detailed story. The pictures I was saving were from about a decade ago. Answering the question “Who do those pictures belong to?” can only be answered after you decide why you are asking. The Terms of Service we agree to before we can post anything answer the legal questions the companies want to ask. They don’t answer the secondary questions, like whether or not you retain some kind of right to your images should someone try to resell them. And the questions that concern courts of law are singularly uninterested in my philosophical considerations, as the Terms of Service speak (appropriately) to needs rather than concepts. If we come to grips with this philosophy, however, then we will have a better sense of the story we will tell and the reason we want to tell it.

[1] If you want to know the specifics, click on the link below and take a look at my scholarship.

[2] I have a Mac Mini that uses my television as a monitor. My initial use case for the Mini was a combination workhorse computer, for those times when my iPad was insufficient or inappropriate for a task, and as a media player. As the iPad and Apple TV have increased in their capability, it has increasingly become primarily a media storage device — the primary repository for documents, pictures, and the like — and backup hub.

Dr. Matthew M. DeForrest is a Professor of English and the Mott University Professor at Johnson C. Smith University. The observations and opinions he expresses here are his own. You are very welcome to follow him on Twitter and can find his academic profile at