Wednesday, August 13, 2008

talking with art historians

With a new baby in the house, I've been taking a break from work and blogging. I do occasionally get a change to hop on the laptop when the baby is hanging out in his bouncy chair. But it is a changed world.

I did come back to work for a few days at the end of July. The L&C Visual Resources Curator Margo and I got a chance to talk to L&C's team of three tenure track art historians about ways that the library's Visual Resources center could help them. It was an interesting conversation, and a few themes emerged.

The personal collections of images that they use to create lectures are of great interest to them. One of the art historians keeps his collection on the network using ARTstor, the other two keep their images in folders on a PC. They all seemed interested in services we could provide them to help build these personal collections--like scanning/metadata creation and/or training students to do so. They mentioned that sharing images between other scholars was sort of a catalyst for professional/social contact. I tried to nudge them toward Web 2.0 approaches like Flickr for organizing/sharing their personal images.

As you might expect, they don't differentiate between institutionally-licensed image collections and those freely available on the web. One of their favorite sites for acquiring images was the Web Gallery of Art. They described ARTstor as useful and a sort of "Walmart" for images and differentiated between its broad stroke approach and more niche websites that focused on more specific areas of art.

Creating physical places where students could discuss and critique art was a potential priority for them and they thought the Visual Resources space could play a role in this. They also expressed a desire for someone with expertise in "visual literacy" as this was a concept that emerged for the Art Department in the recent accreditation visit.

They asked for someone to help them navigate the technical complexities of delivering high quality images in the classroom, especially regarding configuration of computers and projectors. They also wanted help with preparing images for submission in professional publications.

In the era of slides, I would guess that art historians would be lobbying for the institution to purchase slides for the institutional collection to support their courses. Now, the institutional collection isn't as important to them. The two "collections" that are important are their personal collections and publicly-available, network-level collections. Increasingly, the library's job is to facilitate creation, use and navigation of these two types of collections, not to build an organizational collection of images akin to a slide or book collection.

We do have an institutional collection of digital images to support the curriculum on MDID; it's comprised of some licensed images and some scanned images. Likely, we'll be exposing this collection in the ARTstor platform so that it can be incorporated in the critical mass of content and functionality that resides in that network-level collection.

The two publicly available, network-level collections that we have built here are accessCeramics and L&C digital collections.


Bryan's workshop blog said...

It's good to see you posting again, Mark. All best wishes to your growing family!

Margo said...

Your assessment of the meeting is a good outline of the issues challenging Visual Resources Curators as they support those who use digital images of art and architecture in their classroom teaching.

One of the problems with sharing personal collections of digital images is that many of
them contain little if no documentation. If there is some data, it is most always one of personal significance and preferences. That is why the naming of personal digital files and folders are much like tags. Also VR curators know that faculty don't particularly like to take the time to catalog images. The problem is how do you throw all of those personal images into a digital image bucket when there is little standardization in the hooks to fish them out. A personal digital image labeled "Group of three people" would serve well as a compositional study for an Art professor. The same personal digital image labeled "Nativity scene: Jesus, Mary and Joseph" would be helpful for a Religious Studies professor. Both professors could use the image How are they going to find it if it is only labeled one way or the other? And what about those images fished out that make no reference to ownership or copyright? The challenge for VR curators is to create some kind of tagging or cataloging system without totally giving up on data standards such as Dublin Core or VRA Core. We still believe in the use and relevancy of metatdata element sets and standards to describe images.

One of the things mentioned in our meeting was the term "visual literacy." This term can be as slippery as the continuously defined and redefined "information literacy." Visual literacy can refer to the ability to find and choose the best quality of digital images in terms of resolution, color accuracy and accompanying metadata. On the other hand it can refer to the ability of someone to interpret an art object or the image of an art object in terms of its color, texture, size, materials, context, iconographic content, etc. Using the same image example in the paragraph above, it takes different skill sets to identify the pixel size and copyright issues for the digital image of a "Group of three people" than to identify the iconography implied by different arrangements of the group of three people in a "Nativity scene." Data attached to images is important for faculty researchers and college students. Until image search engines get a lot better than something like TinEye, we're still going to need some data to fish out those images from personal faculty collections that populate the digital bucket. Educating faculty about and assisting them with some cataloging standards will help.

Mark Dahl said...


That's a good point about the lack of investment faculty have in cataloging their personal collections as well as tracking copyright information. Your discussion of visual literacy and its potentially divergent meanings is also interesting. I hadn't thought of that concept in such a nuanced way.