Swissair volunteers at ETH-Bibliothek’s Image Archive

Lesezeit: 6 Min.

ETH-Bibliothek’s Image Archive conducted its first successful crowdsourcing project between 2009 and 2013. Former Swissair employees volunteered to help identify and describe around 40,000 images from Swissair’s photo archives online.

The beginnings

In 2009 ETH-Bibliothek acquired the photo archives of the former national airline Swissair from the previous owner, the former Foundation Luftbild Schweiz. The Swissair photo archive comprises around 220,000 photographs (different formats and carriers) and covers a period from 1910 to the grounding of Swissair in October 2001. As regards the captions, many images were described only rudimentarily or even erroneously. Often information on the location, year, precise aircraft types, buildings, events, activities or people was lacking. The Foundation Luftbild Schweiz had already come up with idea of having former Swissair staff fill in the gaps (so-called “crowdsourcing”) but was unable to see it through due to a lack of staff and technical resources.

How we find the crowd. Or: How the crowd finds us!

Finding and motivating the crowd is the be-all and end-all of a successful crowdsourcing project. During the Swissair project, this was made relatively straightforward for us by the fact that the Swissair retirees are a well-organised group. We were able to find volunteers for the project via appeals in the retiree magazines Swissair News and Oldies News or at the annual dinner, which I was allowed to attend. They let me address the roughly 700 guests in a five-minute “advert” between the starter and the main course while a slideshow of the latest images from the archive ran in the background throughout the entire event. Afterwards, I was able to make contact with many interested people and cultivate them over the four-year project.

A total of around 130 interested Swissair volunteers came forward. An average of forty people helped with the image descriptions, half a dozen of whom intensively and regularly. And two retirees were internally crowned “Indexing Kings”.

VW Käfer

Original information: B747-257: old design – on the ground, approx. 1971–1980. Additional information: unknown: Boeing 747-257 B, HB-IGB “Zürich” bearing the design used from 1971 to 1980 on the ground at Zürich-Kloten, approx. 1971–1980, slide, 6 x 6 cm (location no.: LBS_SR04-050449,

This phenomenon, where many people express an interest, many join in once or twice and a few do the lion’s share of the descriptions, is a common feature in most of the projects I’m aware of; we could also confirm it with the open crowdsourcing via the comment function.

You could refer to the cooperation with the Swissair retirees as “controlled” crowdsourcing, where it’s not an unknown crowd that needs to be motivated with an open appeal to get involved, but rather an identifiable group of experts.

Compared to open and anonymous crowdsourcing projects, the knowledge transfer is vast in the case of this manageable group of experts, who display a great deal of interest in the history of their airline and its legacy. Without the dedicated help of these “oldies”, a lot of implicit knowledge would be lost. Studying the literature and source intensively within a reasonable timeframe would not have yielded anywhere near as much specialist knowledge. However, this does not mean to say that the Image Archive’s staff do not examine both the images and the comments of the former Swissair employees with a critical eye.

Alfred Wegmann flog bei Swissair als Bordmechaniker und Flight Engineer von 1947 bis 1973

Original image information: Pilot in front of propeller, no year. Additional image information: Unknown: Flight engineer Alfred Wegman (1917-2007) inspecting the exterior of the Douglas DC-4-1009 A, HB-ILA “Genève” prior to take-off at Cointrin Airport, Geneva. Alfred Wegmann flew with Swissair as an on-board mechanic and flight engineer from 1947 to 1973, approx. 1950, negative, 6 x 6 cm (LBS_SR01-05479,

Work processes

Between December 2009 and December 2013, 200 to 350 new images per week were uploaded to a protected area on the image database Bildarchiv Online along with the available metadata (title, author, date). The Swissair volunteers could then type additional information in the specially activated “Notes” window on the database by entering a password.

Besides working from home via the internet, communication over the telephone between the volunteers and the contact person at the Image Archive was also important. An extremely valuable knowledge transfer took place. However, the time this would ultimately take was grossly underestimated at the beginning of the project. This insider knowledge especially proved priceless in the subsequent refinement of the keyword tree.

The Swissair staff’s work methods and depth of specialist knowledge varied greatly (Brusa 2010). While one volunteer might know and search for aircraft types and people from the early days of Swissair, another could describe all the parts of an engine. However, dating the images accurately proved the most difficult task. Often, conservative estimates based on the service life of a particular aircraft had to suffice.

Erkennbar z.B. aufgrund der typischen Semmel. Das Geschirr war damals aus Porzellan, das Besteck aus Edelstahl (Lieferant: Béard, heute Berndorf)

Original information: Reports: Giants of the air (Mondo book), no year. Additional image information: Unknown: Cold meal in Swissair’s economy class. Recognisable from the typical bread roll, for instance. Back then, the dishes were made of porcelain, the cutlery stainless steel (supplier: Béard, now Berndorf), approx. 1980, slide, 2.4 x 3.6 cm (location no.: LBS_SR04-035584,

The images remained online for a period of eight weeks, after which members of the Image Archive’s staff edited the additional information and annotated the images. The supplementary data was matched with the available metadata or distributed on the adequate metadata fields (title, description, data etc.) and checked for spelling and the consistency of their content. The retirees’ original notes were left unchanged on the database; the original titles and descriptions of the images can be found in the inventory lists.

As the number of digitised and supplemented images increased, the specialist knowledge acquired at the Image Archive also grew. By the end of 2013, the former Swissair employees had examined around 40,000 images. One by one, the fully indexed images were placed on the image database Image Archive Online. A selection was also published in the illustrated book Swissair Souvenirs: Das Fotoarchiv der Swissair in 2012 (Weidmann 2012).

Effort and gains

 At the beginning of the project, the amount of effort involved in supervising the volunteers for the Image Archive was underestimated. For instance, the equivalent of approximately 0.2 full-time jobs were earmarked for supervision and knowledge transfer in the first project year. Around 0.1 full-time positions went on preparing and uploading the photographs and technical support for the volunteers. The title editing took up an additional twenty-per-cent full-time position. For the three-year project, a sixty-per-cent position for the annotation work was financed with external funding. However, the content-related information and added value gained as a result of this successful and fruitful cooperation more than made up for the underestimated amount of effort involved.


Swissair retirees on the occasion of a panel discussion at the 4th Swiss Archive Day on  3 November 2012. Group portrait in the Reading Room Collection and Archives at the ETH-Bibliothek. From left.: Andreas Weil, Peter Thut, Nicole Graf, Richard Schilliger, Jörg Drittenbass and Fredy Peter.

Further reading

An in-depth article on the Swissair project: Graf, Nicole: “Crowdsourcing: Die Erschliessung des Fotoarchivs der Swissair im Bildarchiv der ETH-Bibliothek, Zürich”, Rundbrief Fotografie, Vol. 23 (2016), No. 1 [N.F. 89], p. 24-32. Article online (no images), printed (with images).

Brusa, Nicola: “Der Geist der guten alten Swissair: Swissair-Bildarchiv”, Tagesanzeiger, 30.12.2010.

Peter, Fredy: Swissair: a day by day documentation, Zürich, 2018.

Weidmann, Ruedi: Swissair Souvenirs (Bilderwelten. Fotografien aus dem Bildarchiv der ETH-Bibliothek 2), Zurich 2012.

Complete image Information

Swissair: Cargo handling in a Convair CV-440-11 Metropolitan in Zurich-Kloten, 1956-1967, slide, 9,5 x 12 cm (LBS_SR04-051932,

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  1. Peter Ehrbar
    Sunday, 15 May 2016

    wie kann ich das ganze Fotowerk
    Freundliche Grüsse
    Peter Ehrbar
    sr 17.4.61. – 31.12.2001 (freigestellt)
    Ang Nr 308061

    • Nicole Graf
      Tuesday, 17 May 2016

      Die Swissair-Bilder sind in den Kategorien unter Bestände in “Swissairarchiv” zusammengeführt. Oder mit diesem Direktlink: Oder im Suchschlitz LBS_SR eingeben, damit beginnt der Bildcode der Swissair-Bilder.

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