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Visual Materials Task Force

The purpose of the visual materials task force is to learn more about what scholars and students who use visual resources need and expect from libraries, archives, or museums, and to help librarians, archivists, and curators think about their future role in ensuring access to such resources. Most of the discussion focused on the digitization of visual materials and the creation of new digital images (“born digital”). In the first case, there was concern about whether the culture is learning to be satisfied with surrogates; in the second case, the problem is storage and preservation.

Use of Surrogates versus Originals

The task force members reflected on their experiences with digital images. One member observed that high school and university students today are using electronic resources almost exclusively. If a publication is not on the Web, for these students, it does not exist. Whereas a previous generation of students did research in the library, using print materials, students today rarely use print resources, even as a supplement. This change in practice has severely limited the body of information resources that students consult for research.

Another member pointed out that the opposite is still true at art museums. Although digital images have greatly improved access to art, art historians are hooked on the original. The wide availability of digital surrogates has not decreased interest in viewing the original, in fact, the availability of digital surrogates can stimulate demand for hard copy, as occurred when Oxford University Press mounted a series of publications online in full text. Oxford took the unusual step of making the full text available online because they considered the publications to be of marginal general interest and unlikely to generate revenue even in hard copy. But as a result of this online exposure, hard-copy sales of these publications surpassed their most optimistic expectations. An interesting parallel can be noted with the publication of color plates after World War II, which coincided with more public visits to museums.

On the other hand, surveys conducted by the College Art Association found that art faculty want access to art images, even if they are at low resolution or of poor quality. In some ways, the image can be considered a surrogate for a bibliographic record. Even if it is poor, it is an access point, a superficial level of information that the Web is useful for delivering.

Factors Influencing Availability of Digital Visual Material

The future use of electronic-based visual materials is highly specific to each field of study. However, several factors are likely to influence the creation and availability of digital images.

  1. Value added. First, in any field, one must ask what value is gained from using digital images. One must look at what the medium does best; what can be done in digital format that cannot be done in other formats and how effective is the medium in distributing particular types of information. The answers vary among disciplines, but there are many good examples. In medicine, the use of animated anatomical drawings is a powerful teaching tool. In the humanities, the project to digitize and share images of papyrus holdings from around the world is bringing these fragile pieces together virtually and enabling researchers to exchange digital annotations.
  2. Cost-effectiveness. Increasingly, decisions about whether to keep and where to store paper-based holdings are based on the frequency of their use. The same is true of decisions about whether to acquire or create and maintain digital information. Many materials of high scholarly value are rarely used. Thus, it is likely that a large body of important, but low-use, research material will not become available electronically. On the other hand, it is usually cost-effective to maintain electronic versions of high-use journals or required course materials.
  3. Stability of medium. Digital archives should ascertain what is original and what is a copy. There must be standards for archival storage, and it will be necessary to document the history of the migration of content.
  4. Ownership and use rights. Museums increasingly are unwilling to make their images available online out of concern for how they will be used or fear of losing money. Museums are debating ways to address this: should they mount low-resolution images? Include watermarks? Publishers are often reluctant to grant permission to mount something on the Web. This motivates permission-seekers to think of ways to present their request to the rights holders so that they will be more likely to allow use. It was felt that publishers’ fears about electronic distribution have affected the notion of fair use. For years, librarians have been able to allow photocopying for fair use research purposes. However, copyright has become far more restrictive with digital information, and fair use may not exist on the Web in the future.

The Role of the Librarian in the Electronic Age

What are the roles of librarians when so many others are now involved in the creation, packaging, and delivery of information, and when information can so easily be retrieved at home? Librarians are the only professionals who are trained to organize knowledge, create organizational systems, and understand standards. Computer programmers bring order out of chaos only as far as this can be done electronically. A librarian takes that electronic material and integrates it into the collection, linking print and electronic resources.

How can we reach the same level of confidence and organization when using digital resources as when using physical resources? For example, the availability and provision of digital information raises questions of how to ensure authenticity. Also, how should a librarian select for preservation?

Librarians have played a major role in building the great research collections. Currently, there is no one who does this-or could do this-in cyberspace. The traditional library model, in which people who knew books gave careful thought to creating collections that would best serve researchers, stands in sharp contrast to the free market of ideas represented by the Web today. In fifty years, if we look back on the great research collections that have been built over time, will the 1990s mark a change in their character? Will funds spent on improving access to information by digital means be taken away from acquisition and preservation of paper-based materials? To the extent that some research that includes visuals (maps or charts) is available only on the Web, as is increasingly the case with scientific disciplines, how will librarians know what to select? There may be more than one version of the material, and the open structure of the Web means that much of the material available there has not been peer reviewed.

As for the role of the librarian in digital collection development, the most important thing is to understand the institution’s objectives: why does it want to create a digital resource base? Often, the goal is to raise visibility. How do these goals and objectives compare with the need to add new materials to the collection? Librarians must talk with faculty and find out what is happening at the departmental level. At Harvard, for example, it is the faculty who select materials to be digitized for curricular purposes.

Librarians can help develop digital collections by ensuring that frequently used items are pointed to and referenced. It is also important to think about all the possible audiences for digitized images and other items so that they are presented and indexed in a way that is most useful for a broad audience and that relates to the problems to be solved. More information is needed about what materials students use. The Andrew Mellon Foundation has sponsored a project to learn how students and faculty use museums for research. MIT’s Media Lab was cited as an example of a digital resource for problem-based learning.

Librarians will increasingly need to understand electronic publishing and intellectual property laws and regulations. This is especially important to those who develop exhibitions for the Web. Librarians can also benefit from a discussion of how to handle “subversive” or controversial material. Examples include the display of recipes for explosives in exhibitions and of images which some might consider offensive. Concern over controversial materials is especially an issue for visual resources curators.

Finding Aids for Image Collections

Some task force members felt that creating access to existing digital images through finding aids is the most important thing that can be done.

Participants agreed that indexing of image collections is the key problem to making digital information usable. A key issue is the training and redeployment of staff into Web specialist positions focused upon cataloging and indexing collections. While some institutions are cataloging collections of images, not many are indexing individual images. As a consequence, metadata on image collections may become increasingly available while access to individual images remains limited. Standardized cataloging systems for museum use have not evolved as they have for libraries. Librarians claim to know how museums ought to be cataloging their holdings, and are agitating to unify the recording of visual holdings in a way that would fit into existing bibliographic formats. However, most library catalogers are trained to catalog books and journals. Very few are trained as both curators and bibliographers who can deal with special materials.

Search mechanisms for retrieving individual images in collections would allow queries by subject, image, or time of origin. It was acknowledged, however, that scholars are not driving the creation of such image retrieval systems. Photo stock houses and other image providers are trying to find ways to search images, and the military has also done research in this area. The need for finding aids becomes more acute when the collection is open to large numbers of users on the Web, as in the case of the Library of Congress (LC). LC has mounted many images on the Web as part of its digital library and has thus made them widely accessible. In many other cases, when an institution digitizes its special collections, the images are usually not open to users outside the institution. Harvard’s poster collection, for example, is now being scanned but will not be put on the Web.

It is hoped a system could be developed to allow virtual browsing of books or images that would be cataloged or housed in proximity to each other, as they are in libraries. It would be very useful to develop a way of looking at sets of objects on-screen, even though the actual item may be stored offsite. At the very least, one should be able to bring up the title pages, contents, and a list of illustrations at the terminal. Harvard is developing a system that will allow a reader to peruse the stacks on the monitor in this way.

Archiving of Electronic-based Materials

Preserving Web-based information presents a serious challenge. Librarians do not download materials from the Web to save them. Because the Web is so vast and constantly changing, it is impossible for librarians to select and capture the best information in hard copy. Rather, they create links to good sites, and monitor them to ensure the quality is maintained. At present, there are no electronic archival systems for the Web, although there are efforts to create them.

Maintaining digital information over time has involved the need to “migrate” it so that it is converted into new formats to keep it usable as new technological platforms emerge. In the medical schools, one participant reported, migration of information for curricular use has not been a problem. As long as information is constantly used, it will survive digitally. However, there was concern that without formal systems for archiving, a larger body of digital information may perish through benign neglect.

Storage is also a problem. Many museums with vast collections have not found a system for the storage of the vast collections of information available on the Web; assuming that such a system could be constructed, it is doubtful that any institution could afford it. Even though the costs of digital memory have gone down dramatically as the capacity of storage media have increased, the true costs include the capture, which costs between $4 and $8 per image, and the cataloging of digital images.

Film and Video

Two characteristics of still images also apply to film and video images: it is often difficult to discern whether the copy one is perusing is an original or an authorized or unauthorized copy, and it is often difficult to know under what circumstances the copy was made and thus what rights need to be considered in instructional or research use.

In the future, would film and video images be used increasingly as a primary source for research? The consensus was that, while films are used heavily for instruction, there is no indication that they are being consulted as primary sources except, perhaps, for ethnographic work. There is less of a historical imperative to keep film in its original form because surrogate forms will capture most of the important aspects. However, film historians insist upon viewing film rather than video copies, although most repositories of current films acquire them as video versions.


E.1 Improve access

Many of the visual resources housed in libraries and archives have not been indexed or cataloged. Until bibliographic access is provided, these materials cannot be fully exploited by scholars.

E.2 Long-term preservation

As more visual resources are digitized and made available on the Web, ways must be found to ensure preservation of the digital files, just as the originals need to be preserved for as long as possible.

E.3 Integration

In the future, visual resources will grow in importance as primary source materials. Librarians must find ways to integrate these visual resources into the mainstream functions of the research library.

ACLS-CLIR Possible Program Initiatives

ACLS and CLIR should convene museum and library curators to discuss the most productive way to provide digital surrogates of visual resources on the Web, taking into consideration issues of authenticity, intellectual property rights, and costs.

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