Friday, October 20, 2017

Pinterest for the Researcher

First Published in the Oerthan Chronical, 10-17.

Disclaimer: My focus is historical costuming, and I research most periods, not just pre-1600….and there are a lot more post 1680s extant pieces in museums.  But I will try to keep this as general as I can.  Hopefully these hints help!

Figure 1

Many people say to stay away from using Pinterest as a resource for your research.  Obviously, since I’m writing an article on it, I feel somewhat differently; it /can/ be used as a useful source of information…if utilized correctly.  So I composed this batch of advice, which should help keep you from the dreaded Pinterest – Tumblr loop.  However, it basically boils down to…:

Garbage in, Garbage out:

Pinterest takes suggestions of what to show you from what you pin…including sites/types of sites, keywords, etc.  What this means is that if you pin random things without accurate notations, your feed will tend towards that.  On the other side, if you—as I suggest—stick with pinning from reputable sources (generally museums, and libraries for manuscripts), that is what your feed will primarily be…and is what you want, since you can use these sources for documentation without getting a hairy eyeball.  Most of the time, I won’t pin unless I see it’s from a .edu or .gov site (or similar for other countries). Sadly, this means you should probably attempt not to pin shiny reproduction items.  It can mess up the algorithms, since you are trying to keep your feed filled with reputable sites.  However, if you feel you must gather other people’s work for inspiration—and I can understand the desire to do so--, make sure it goes back to the original maker (who hopefully provided documentation).  Unfortunately for those who tend to work with earlier period items, Pinterest can be scant on inforomation, simply because there isn’t as much material data out there, so you may have to work off of tertiary sources composed of other people’s work more often.

Dedicate your Pinterest:

Unfortunately, Pinterest doesn’t yet have the option for multiple accounts, so if you want to get the most out of it, you need to practice discipline in not pinning items which don’t have reputable sources and information.  Obviously, this works best if you are just now opening the account so you don’t have old stuff potentially messing it up, but algorithm tends to give the most attention to the most recent pins, so hope is not lost.  Along with practicing discipline in what you pin, make sure you include citations in the captions; if you are pinning something from a manuscript, include the MS number and location of the book; if an extant piece, include the date of the piece, what the piece is called in general (the correct name, preferably, although this can be tricky),  and the museum at which it resides.  For paintings, have the date painted and origin, the painter, and hopefully the museum in which it resides.

Another technique which helps up the average quality of what you see is to Seed your Feed; find a good source of something you are interested in, and pin a bunch from there, with correct information (see Using Citations, above).  This gives the algorithms something to work with.  This technique can lead to a bit of a vicious cycle, since if you pin a bunch of something, that’s going to what is primarily in your feed for a while, which means it feeds off of itself.  Not a bad thing, but if you have many periods or topics of interest, make sure to spread your pins out a bit.

Some Auxiliary Tools and Techniques:

When you are doing Pinterest based research, I’ve found that using Firefox browser seems to work best, if you get yourself a couple of addons right off.  The Pinterest share button, is more or less a given so that you can share new images….but you also need to be able to do reverse image searches easily.  I use Search by Image (by Google), but I believe there are others out there as well.  Chrome and other browsers may also have similar addons as well now, and I doubt it matter which one you use.

Use reverse image searches with keywords to find images which are (probably) reputable, but not linked to the original source, or don’t give the needed info.  It’s pretty simple…just right click and select search by image.  Usually, the search box will give a couple of terms which it thinks is related…usually, these aren’t much help.  I usually replace the suggested terms with more specific with museum, or manuscript/illumination to start, then get more detailed as I find hints as to the source.  In addition, make use of Boolean searches….the one I use the most is – This helps keep you from ending up back where you started.  However, sometimes an individual pin of the image can have hints to help narrow your search, and you can spot that in the small preview before you go to that page.

Use Specific Terms:

When you search in Pinterest, use a string of specific terms to help keep modern stuff out—I usually include the decade as well as what exactly I’m after; instead of searching for Medieval illumination, Lady, I went far more specific (too specific, when I first tried to narrow it down to decade) with 14th century, illumination, Italian, lady (figure 2).  In the first search (figure 1), you can see that while it wasn’t too bad, it was a bit out of focus with results from multiple periods; in figure 2, you can see that there aren’t any modern results, and all the images are from 14th century manuscripts, even if not all Italian in origin.  If that doesn’t give you any results—and it has happened to me!—take a term off.  If you end up with too many non-applicable things, tighten up the search terms even more.  Then shift your search; move it up or down by a decade, use a synonym for your target term, things like that to broaden it while remaining specific.  

Figure 2

Organize, organize, organize! 

Hate to say it, but the more organized and specific your personal boards, the better the information you end up with, since it give the site more usable keywords.  When I sorted my clothing finds by Decade and Gender, I started getting much better results just coming up in my feed.  So spend an afternoon with a pot of tea and good music, and go to town on re-sorting everything.  DO use project boards when you have something specific in mind!  They can be an invaluable way to organize pictorial resources when you are in the Research and Development stages of a new project.

Maistir Bran Mac Fynin

© John Frey, 2017. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.


  1. I tend to do most of this, as it developed intuitively over time, and I have indeed noticed that Pinterest's suggestions have become much better suited to my needs over time as I started pinning more conscientiously. But since it's a personal account, and I use it for personal interests, not all of it I do as rigidly... I do repin things without all the info, especially fashion plates; but I indeed do try to avoid Tumblr (and blogs without the relevant info in general) as much as possible. The biggest mistake to make when using Pinterest for research, I feel, is repinning without visiting the original site when it's not an obviously valid source. (And I do even that sometimes when I'm in a hurry...)
    ... and when I pin from a musem site myself, I always include not just the museum name, but also the object ID. A, it's only polite to give credit that way, B, I've already had links disappear on me with site overhauls, so that should help with tracking objects down...
    What intrigues me now in your suggestion - I had no idea there's a search by image add on, that should come in super-helpful, I do that often enough with people's interesting but lazy Pins! Also the tip to add "museum" to the search.

    1. Yup! Those who have been using it for years as a way to find serious information will likely already know a bunch of it.

      I concur, and that is something I forgot to add; check to make sure the source is any good. And that is where the search by image comes in, to get you to the original source. Quite often I just skip over examples which don't have obviously reputable sites because I'm either in a hurry, or don't care enough

      When I pin from a museum, I usually copy and paste the information the museum provides, which includes the ID.