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Art History, Scholarship and Image Libraries:

Realising the Potential of the Digital Age.


Jennifer Durran

The technology to digitise images of art works and to make those
images available on a computer network is fast becoming a reality.
It has been suggested that the technical requirements associated
with these developments will be far easier to define and resolve
than the institutional barriers that the discipline of art history must
overcome if it is to realise the potential of the digital age.
Consideration is given to elements within the art historical scholarly
communication system that are in a state of transition and the way
that current changes may foreshadow the widespread adoption of
digital images as an information resource. The author concludes
that the changes will be one of evolution rather than revolution.

1. Introduction
‘Computing, scholarship and society [are] weaving an intricate dance, each
responding to and generating a complex web of new and old forces,
institutions, rules and standards, ideas. Reviewing the settings in which
these transformations occur is a requisite first step towards assessing their
impact on scholarship in the arts and humanities’
- John Garrett, New social and economic mechanisms to encourage
access, 1995

That the late twentieth century is witnessing enormous shifts in the

provision and access of information has become a truism. These
changes have profound implications for all fields of knowledge and
scholarly pursuit, including those previously unaffected on a large
scale by computerised developments in information transfer -
namely the arts and humanities. From within these disciplines, there
has been growing concern that their specific needs will not be met
by the emerging ‘information superhighway.’ Expert groups in the
United States, for instance, joined forces to ‘address the urgent
need for the humanities and arts to gain a voice in the planning and
development of the National Information Infrastructure’ (the Clinton
Administration’s plan for a national telecommunications system)
and to assert the significant contributions that these fields can make
‘not only to the content of the NII but also to advances in technology
that will drive its development.’ (Humanities and arts on the
information highways, 1994: 1, 7)

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This paper focuses on one of those arts and humanities disciplines,
art history, and the potential that a networked digital information
environment has for serving the needs of scholarship and teaching
into the next century. That the technical infrastructure of the
Internet may not adequately support the art historical scholarly
communication process is only one of the many fundamental issues
that need to be addressed but one which seems relatively easy to
resolve in comparison to the ‘institutional’ obstacles within art
historical scholarship and teaching. Many of these are subtle,
diffused and difficult to define clearly but require investigation if we
are to understand the context in which digital imaging is being
implemented and what will hamper or foster its integration into
those established practices of individuals and organisations
accepted as fundamental to the discipline.
The underlying assumption of this paper is that which is reflected
overwhelmingly in the literature of visual resources librarianship -
that a digital networked information environment will result in the
advancement of art history practices and that its implementation is
inevitable. It is undeniable that the technologies that permit the
digital high-resolution capture and storage of photographic images
of art and allow access to those images via a global network have
enormous potential to solve many of the problems and difficulties in
the study and teaching of art history. But the digital networked
information scenario opens up a whole range of new and complex
issues and exacerbates some existing problems for image libraries.
The technologies of image capture, manipulation, storage and
transfer continue to move ahead at an astounding rate, far
outpacing the ability of libraries and scholars to incorporate them
into their activities in any real meaningful way. The further
penetration of digital technology into the domain of art historical
scholarship is inevitable but the field is unlikely to ever match the
responsiveness of the business and consumer markets to new
trends. The process of realising the full potential of a digital
networked environment is more likely to be that of evolution rather
than revolution, with digital images supplementing existing
resources rather than replacing them on a large scale. Present
developments suggest pockets of change will precede more
widespread shifts in the future. Many of these changes will be
experimental and their success or failure will help determine the
direction ahead.

2. The Art History Scholarly Communication

Throughout the art historical scholarly communication system and
its interlocking, interdependent parts, two particular characteristics
can be identified: a marked dependency on photographic
reproductions, and a slow uptake of technology. Both have historical
precedents which can be traced back to art history’s beginnings in

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the nineteenth century and both will continue to influence the pace
and nature of change.

As a broad generalisation, one could say that the primary object of

an art historian’s enquiry is the art object or cultural monument and
its context; (Brilliant, 1988:120) the main information sources being
photographic reproductions and photographically illustrated texts.
Teaching is conducted with the aid of copious 35mm slides to
illustrate lectures and seminars. Communication of research is via
the publication of illustrated books and journal articles and, to a
lesser extent, conference presentations again illustrated with slides.
This process has varied little since the late nineteenth century when
art history emerged as a separate discipline in the university
system. During that period, the literature and the practices of art
historical research and teaching were also being forged into the
form we know today as a result of a convergence of developments
in transmissive and reflective photography, the refinement of
processes for printing photographically illustrated art books and
magazines, the technology to project photographic images, the
accessibility of art with the founding of public art museums and the
growing popularity of art exhibitions, and last, but not least, the
establishing of great public art libraries and image collections.

The image library or collection plays an integral role in the scholarly

communication system. Collections of art images developed to
serve different functions in the system: archival collections (primary
materials where conservation for posterity is the overriding factor),
commercial collections (primarily as a source of revenue), teaching
collections (mostly secondary materials), private research
collections (reflecting an individual’s or a group’s speciality)
(Coulson, 1988 :9) and museum collections (usually primary
materials that document a collection for management and
publication purposes). Whilst many collections combine a number of
these functions, they are generally different in content and level of
accessibility. The most important criteria for defining the usefulness
of these collections is volume and accessibility for ‘without such
images in abundance, the act of comparison – the methodological
basis of the discipline of art history - cannot come into full play and
the facility fails to serve its users.’ (Brilliant, 1988:123)

Photography has defined and sustained virtually unchanged the

practices of art history teaching and research for almost one
hundred years. It has dictated the types of enquiry possible,
contributed to the rise of the illustrated scholarly monograph as the
quintessential end product of scholarly research and secured the
role of the image collection as the primary resource for teaching.
The enormous infrastructure built upon the photograph represents
huge commitments in terms of finances and time. The working
practices of art historians are based very much on the photographic

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‘way of seeing’. As Donald Preziosi (1989: 72) has declared, ‘the
modern discipline of art history presupposes the existence of
photography. Indeed, art history as we know it today is the child of

In the nineteenth century the use of photography by art historians

was controversial and limited initially to a few avid supporters.
Despite its obvious benefits as a scholarly tool it was not universally
accepted in art history as it was in other fields. The most acceptable
use of photography appears to have been for teaching.
Unfortunately, there appears to be little or no documentation about
the transformation of scholars’ attitudes to photography throughout
the course of this century. There is a critical dearth of information
about twentieth century art historians’ actual uses of photographic
or even more recent technology and conclusions are often drawn
from anecdotal evidence in autobiographical descriptions. (Hamber,
1990: 135-6) What follows are some generalisations based on those
limited sources. They may or may not be representative of art
historians’ attitudes but give some indication of a deep-seated
ambivalence towards technology of any description.

The late 1970s saw the introduction of computers for collection

management in image libraries and museums. Despite the
development of specialised art historical bibliographic databases,
art historians in the early 1980s indicated an ‘almost unanimous
unwillingness to invest time in learning about computers.’ (Stam,
1984: 118) The 1980s also saw the implementation of the videodisc
resulting in a certain degree of automated access to images. Many
librarians saw great promise in these new technologies, yet there
were grave reservations from scholars. In retrospect the videodisc,
like microform before it, failed to deliver even though both formats
conformed to the criteria of volume and accessibility deemed
essential for photographic image collections. The reasons for their
failure are complex and require more careful analysis than has been
given in the literature to date.

By the mid-1990s many image libraries had substantially

computerised their collections, yet they failed to attract the
academic user en masse. The introduction of digital imaging
technology in the late 1990s has primarily been instigated by
librarians. Digital images are being included in online catalogues
and mounted on the Internet and on campus networks for student
study purposes. There has also been some activity by art historians
in developing teaching materials incorporating digital images. Most
art historians would now have a personal computer and a network
connection in their office. There is a general level of acceptance of
word processing and library online public access catalogue (OPAC)
searching but the extent to which they are using computers for
research is relatively unknown. The emphasis until now has been on

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the production of digital image resources and interest is now shifting
towards how those resources are used, particularly in scholarship. To
date, there have been few unequivocal examples of scholarly
research that could not have been undertaken without access to this
type of resource.

The last few decades have seen art history struggling to redefine
itself as an academic discipline. In the past there has been, more-or
less, a set of great (male) artists, fine art ‘masterpieces’ and certain
periods which were considered legitimate fields of study. The
boundaries of art history have been extended – to encompass the
study of women artists, ethnic and black artists, images from
popular culture and advertising as well as non-western cultures - so
that it has become in effect the study of visual culture, ‘the social
and cultural construction of visual experience in everyday life,
media, representation and the visual arts .’(Mitchell, 1995: 540) The
use of methodologies derived from literary criticism which are highly
theoretical and depend on few or no images has grown such that
‘linguistics, semiotics, rhetoric and various modes of ‘textuality’
have become the lingua franca for critical reflection on the arts, the
media and other cultural forms.’ (Mitchell, 1994:11) It is ironic that
this turning away from the use of images has occurred at a time
when interest from scholars in other disciplines such as history, the
performing arts, anthropology and sociology, women’s studies,
psychology, etc is on the rise as part of ‘a complexly related
transformation [in which]...the picture now...emerg[es] as a central
topic of discussion in the human sciences in the way that language
once did.’ (Mitchell, 1994:13)

The study of fine art objects implies a close relationship between art
historians and art museums. The museum has had a strong
influence on the type of scholarship that has traditionally been
pursued, at least in the field of American art, where the museum
rather than the university was the primary sponsor of scholarly
investigation up until the 1960s. (Corn, 1988:193) This relationship
between the art historian and the art museum seems likely to
change if art historians are now interested in all kinds of visual
culture not just the ‘aesthetically superior’ museum object. Art
museums themselves are rethinking their role. The act of collecting,
and the ownership and interpretation of collections has become
increasingly problematic and controversial , particularly ‘the vast
resources expended to [purchase], conserve, exhibit, reproduce,
study and interpret a porous set of privileged objects’ (Corn,
1988:193) when, according to Barbara Stafford (1994: 1) ‘objects
have fallen into disrepute as a major source of knowledge.’

The use of appropriation as an art style and the questioning of

notions of originality, authenticity and presence have served to
undermine the sanctity of the fine art object. At the same time

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museums are looking at new technologies to improve access to their
collections. Interactive multimedia is being used to assist visitors to
learn more about the exhibits within the museum and CD-ROMs and
World Wide Web sites are available for those who want to visit the
‘virtual museum’

According to John Sinclair (1994), there is increasing evidence that

‘technologically advanced societies may be on the threshold of
some fundamental transformations in the roles of communication,
culture and economics.’ Certainly many elements of the scholarly
communication system are coming under the influence of economic
factors. Funding to universities is increasingly less generous and
enterprising scholars have begun to look to the corporate sector for
sponsorship. Scholarship has long been in the service of the
commercial art market however the extent to which economic
considerations are influencing “non-commercial scholarship” has
become a concern for many. Museums continue to seek corporate
and private sponsorship for mounting blockbuster exhibitions,
refurbishing or building new facilities and particularly for special
projects such as digitisation or multimedia. Indeed as Theodore
Roszak (1986: 189) has remarked, ‘digitising something is becoming
one of those utterly safe, undeniably worthy projects that
foundations love to finance.’ Recently, scholars, museums and
libraries have found a new source of funding opened to them as a
result of the worldwide “multimedia phenomenon”. The Australian
Federal Government, for example, in 1994 committed $84 million to
the development of a multimedia industry in which the arts is
expected to play a major role. The idea that the cultural sector may
become one of the most significant sectors in the economy, a
veritable ‘fin-de-siècle engine of economic growth,’ (Court, 1995: 3)
is shared by many governments and international blocs such as the
European Community and the G-7 group of nations which have
initiated projects to develop markets for multimedia cultural

Publication constitutes an essential link in the academic

infrastructure and the illustrated monograph remains the
quintessential end product of art historical scholarship, vital for the
communication of research results, for enhancing career prospects,
and for education and teaching purposes. Its future nevertheless
seems somewhat clouded as ‘publishing statistics...indicate a
steadily rising price of publications with an accompanying decrease
in unit sales...threaten[ing] the survival of an affordable illustrated
monograph.’ (Battin, 1989: 4) The trend towards using fewer
illustrations to cut costs can have an effect on the value of a
publication; its usefulness is ‘seriously compromised when such
publications rely heavily on verbal descriptions of the artworks and
contain few or no pictures.’ (Brilliant, 1988: 122) The difficulties
authors have in locating copyright holders and securing permission

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for reproduction of the work in a publication for a reasonable fee
appears to be a real problem for art historians. Museums have been
severely criticised for obstructing scholarship by making
reproduction fees unaffordable for scholars. Sometimes it is
necessary for authors and publishers to use less relevant images or
none at all on purely practical or economic grounds. (Rees, 1995: 5)

In the field of architectural history, the publication of journal articles

has reportedly become less and less important for scholars, serving
only as an introduction to publishing for junior members of the
profession. (Trachtenberg, 1988:210) Should this also be true of art
history, it may partly explain the virtual non-existence of scholarly
electronic publishing in the art history field, as the journal model is
currently the dominant paradigm for that format. Undoubtedly
securing permission to use or obtain digital images to accompany
the text is another.

There is little indication that art publishers are about to start using
digital images in book production. This is disappointing to many
librarians and art historians who are hoping that when traditional
print-on-paper art books are produced completely by electronic
means and hence require digital images to be supplied, there will be
a flow-on effect into other areas.

The higher education sector is undergoing dramatic transformation

as universities seek to redefine themselves and their mission in the
wake of drastic budget cuts. Teaching has perhaps been an
undervalued activity in universities, perceived as not being
accorded equal status with research, especially in terms of
promotion for art historians. In recent years there has been a
resurgence of interest in undergraduate teaching and increasing
recognition is being given to those developing innovative programs
which are viewed by management as a way to attract more students
to the university. Teaching methodologies have re m a i n e d fairly
static since the nineteenth century but distance education, open
learning, computer mediated learning, multimedia teaching and
learning materials, are offering new opportunities and challenges for
art historians and for art librarians as well. Projects such as
ArtServe, the Piero Project/ECIT (Electronic Compendium of Images
and Text) and Project Delta serve as excellent examples of the use
of networked digital images for teaching purposes. The growing
number of conferences on the subject is further evidence of this
trend. These innovations in curriculum and pedagogy will remain
outside mainstream practices without major changes in institutional
cultures that continue to rank humanities low in the provision of
technology, without changes in the relationship of academics to
librarians, information technologists and information re s sources
(Summary Report of the Spring 1996 meeting of the CNI Task Force,
1996) and the support of the administration who still view the

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introduction of information technology in terms of slashing the costs
of educational delivery.

3. The Digital Networked Environment

The concept of a universal image library dates back to the
nineteenth century and has been kept alive throughout the
twentieth century, with its proponents becoming more optimistic
with the advent of computer networks. Whilst technology advances
might appear to make this possible in theory, in many ways the
promise of universal access has become an increasingly unrealistic
prospect if we consider the problems of conversion of materials,
copyright and licensing of digital information, intellectual access,
information overload and emerging alternative sources of digital

The images to which scholars need access are scattered in perhaps

tens of thousands of archives, research institutions, libraries,
museums, conservation laboratories, government bodies, sales and
auction houses and other collections around the world in countries
with vast differences in their level of access to imaging and
networking technology. Institutions outside the higher education
sector often lack eve n the most basic facilities. Even today in the
USA where one would expect penetration of the Internet to be the
widest into the community, many major museums have no access at
all. The same is true for major art museums in Australia until quite
recently. Even within universities, inequities exist between
campuses and within any given campus. These gaps are likely to
widen as those with funds and expertise (especially the developers)
continue to upgrade the quality and capability of their computing
technology and those without struggle to maintain even the most
basic facilities which are not capable of handling the increasingly
sophisticated presentation of art information.

Many institutions are instigating imaging projects that will run in

stand-alone mode or will be accessible only on campus networks.
Digitisation of images per se is not likely to achieve major changes
in work practices, in fact it may merely be transferring information
from one medium to another. The history of photography can teach
us a valuable lesson. It was not photography of art works by itself
that transformed the study of art history in the nineteenth century
but the powerful combination of photography and the printing press,
that is, an efficient and cheap form of mass distribution which gave
unparalleled access to images of works of art. In the late twentieth
century, the network will be the agent of distribution.

Without a volume of images, networks will continue to remain

relatively content poor for art historians. But we must ask how is
that critical mass going to get there? Is the dream of open access to

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the world’s image collections merely a fantasy, the sort described
by Theodore Roszak (1986: 156) as ‘so subliminally delusionary that
it often eludes critical discussion...a vision deeply embedded in the
Cult of Information.’

Some of the image libraries dating back to nineteenth century have

millions of items; the average university teaching collection holds
possibly between 100,000 and 500,000 items. Given the enormous
scope of the field, where does one start to convert images from
photographic to digital form? The following options a re possible: no
conversion (new material received in electronic form), conversion on
demand (image not requested is not converted), selective
conversion (using various criteria), gradual retrospective conversion
(as funds permit), large-scale retrospective conversion (wasteful
since material never used is converted) and co-operative conversion
(avoids duplication). (Hood et al, 1991: 248) All of these are now
under way with the exception of the latter two options. The most
desirable and cost effective option is obviously co-operative
conversion but image libraries have no history of sharing
information and no infrastructure for co-operation. Image libraries
can continue to avoid the issue of information sharing whilst the
focus remains on the acquisition and provision of information.

Copyright has been and continues to be problematic for image

libraries, particularly those used for university teaching. The
overwhelming bulk of their collection will have been acquired by
photographic copying of images in publications - books, exhibition
catalogues, journals - and other printed sources such as postcards.
In the absence of clear legal guidelines, many librarians allowed
themselves to believe they were immune from prosecution because
the copying was for educational and research purposes. As
reasonably isolated and autonomous units, image libraries have
been able to continue their extensive and vigorous copying
programs for decades. In a digital networked environment, libraries
would become subject to greater scrutiny and control.

Recent and proposed changes to copyright law appear to benefit

copyright holders and large commercial interests at the expense of
libraries, museums and scholarship. (Kauffman, 1996: 2) The
emergence of a multimedia industry with an insatiable appetite for
images is implicated in these changes. Education and the arts are
increasingly viewed as fair game by multimedia companies as
intense competition forces them to seek more specialised market
segments. The multimedia industry is viewed by governments as an
area of enormous economic growth, therefore it is of concern to
them that copyright laws are hampering investment. At the same
time, rights holders are aggressively seeking ways to regain the
control they had to a large extent lost with photography. It is hoped
that these rights holders distinguish between the multinational

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multimedia corporation which wishes to use their images and the
needs of image libraries, scholars and publishers when determining
their fees.

As publishers, slide vendors and commercial agencies move to

provide digital images themselves, rather than granting permission
for others to digitise their slides or photographs, libraries will be
inevitably forced to confront the issue of licensing rather than
copyright. The use of images will be determined by a contract
negotiated between the library and the vendor. Possible restrictions
could extend to user types, what users can do with the material, the
level and extent of access, time limitations, purchase or lease of
images and archiving.

Further, a library’s ability to provide access to a wide variety of

material might be compromised if continuing budget cuts result in
insufficient funds to pay for licences or if rights holders decide not to
offer material at reasonable rates or to discontinue non-profit-
making material. (Lynch, 1994) The problem of compliance will be
assisted by new advanced rights management technologies coming
onto the market. These will provide ‘a secure distributed electronic
commerce and rights management operating system layer that can
protect copyright, ensure payment (if a fee is charged), collect
usage information, enable distributed electronic value chains...’ as
well as supporting transaction and subscription pricing models.
(Summary report, 1996)

Image libraries have traditionally developed hierarchical

classification schemes based on artist, medium, school, style,
nationality and chronological time period to physically order images
of art objects. This may have suited the prevailing pattern of
teaching and scholarship at one stage, but developments in the
scope of art history noted above have broadened the discipline to
include non-western art, popular art and visual culture in general.
Neither these nor forms of contemporary visual arts such as
conceptual art and computer-generated art fit comfortably, if at all,
into the old framework. Changes in academic curricula away from
the chronologically based courses dealing with artists and their
masterpieces towards other approaches, for example,
interdisciplinary, Marxist, feminist, post-colonial and/or more
theoretical models - linguistic, semiotic, psychoanalytical
(Tickner,1994: 404) – have forced librarians to reconsider how well
existing classification schemes cater for their users.

It has been suggested that the image database will solve the
problem of physical organisation however it places great reliance on
alternative methods of retrieval such as subject indexing, to date
little used in image libraries apart fro m some specialist research
collections. Ben Kessler (1993: 56) has rightly pointed out that ‘in an

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era of shrinking budgets, what depth of subject analysis can we
truly afford to undertake? ’

In the digital networked environment the concept of access

becomes the central motif.
(Conway, 1996: 14) The art historian is no longer restricted to the
image library at his/her institution and can access images from a
potentially limitless number of sources from his/her workstation.
With the proliferation of scholarly sub-specialities and the widening
scope of art historical studies, one single library is less and less
likely to have a sufficient proportion of images to satisfy their users.
As the physical and intellectual boundaries of the image library
dissolve, the art historian may find him/herself searching not only
through art image databases but those from other disciplines with
an ongoing interest in images.

Art historians generally find browsing a useful information-seeking

tactic but searching through vast, unstructured batches of images is
time-consuming and inefficient without some initial narrowing of a
search to produce a workable number of hits. The Internet’s current
state of disorder may have ‘much to offer [those] 20th century
scholars dissatisfied with strict disciplinarity...looking for
unpredictable connections, jumping across scholarly borders’
(Stafford, 1994: 287) but it is increasingly coming to resemble a
Cabinet of Curiosities, the eighteenth century precursor of the
museum that had no single organising principle or systemisation,
‘bereft of labels and shapeless by any classical canon...unmoored
from past context, this sea of fragments was incomprehensible, and
by not possessing a pre-established meaning...[it was] open to
continual interpretation... belonging to a totality forever evading the
spectator.’(Stafford, 1994: 251)

The glut of images retrieved from inefficient searching mechanisms

may become a problem for researchers. Automated information
filtering and other improvements in locating and effectively
accessing images on networks are desperately needed, however
many of these are still in their infancy. One solution to this
information overload is for scholars to set up their own private
digital image collection as many of them did with slides. From their
own computer workstation , the art historian could set up links to
highly relevant databases on the network, customise subsets of
those databases, download miscellaneous images found through
browsing or specific images to which they need to refer to
constantly. The scope for this option is increasing as scholars a re
allowed access to material that libraries are not, for example, the
Corbis Corporation, a commercial digital image archive, allows
individual users (but not libraries) to download images for personal
use only.

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Evolution or revolution?
The introduction and use of digital imaging are rarely considered in
the wider context of the scholarly communication system as a whole
but in terms of one of its many elements, for example, the image
library, university teaching or the art museum. Given the size of the
system, its enormous investment in photographic images and the
technology to create, store, project and print them, as well as the
nature of academic institutions, it is difficult to accept the scenario
of revolutionary change as proposed by some writers. What is clear
is that there are small pockets of change and definite scope for even
greater change as the use of digital images and network technology
begins to infiltrate other areas.

Don R. Swanson has argued the case for evolutionary change in

library and information services. He maintains that evolutionary
mechanisms such as variation-and-selection underlie the processes
by which knowledge (and thus the library) grows and are also
central to an understanding of how information services change,
improve and adapt to new conditions. (Swanson, 1979: 78) This
concept of evolutionary change offers a more useful framework in
which to view the seemingly uneven and haphazard implementation
of small digital imaging applications and their influence on the art
historical scholarly communication system.

Evolution can be slow, expensive and inefficient as a process of

change, and unfortunately, ‘there are decades of difference
between having a good idea, turning it into a very interesting
prototype and actually building a system.’ (Schmitt, 1991: 413) The
rapid proliferation of small uncoordinated digitisation projects
unguided by any systematic plan has been seen as a major problem
but Swanson’s model, which explains how large scale systems
behave when subsystems or components are able to determine
their own course of action, allows us to understand this type of
activity as beneficial rather than detrimental to the advancement of
the general good. The need for centralised control and overall goals
when building large-scale networked systems typified the ill-fated
approaches taken by the art and museum world in the 1980s.
According to Swanson, attempting to impose ‘overall goals or to
design exact blueprints, for systems whose components are people
and institutions in pursuit of their own goals and interests’ is an
exercise in futility. (Swanson, 1979: 84) Another reason to avoid
large-scale long-range systems planning is the ever present
possibility of large-scale failure. If experimentation is allowed to take
place at the level of small individual components within the system,
only that single component is eliminated with failure. Innovation,
imagination and experimentation need to be encouraged. The trial-
and-error elimination mechanism explains how new approaches
emerge, fail to deliver on function, usability, cost, etc, and
consequently die. The successful traits of systems that survive are

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transmitted by imitation. The improved variant becomes dominant
and serves as a new point of departure for further developments.

Many of the imaging projects to date have been driven largely by

the technology itself and by institutions. Often librarians are
designing and implementing imaging systems where scholars are
the intended user group. Very few investigations into the art
historian’s information seeking practices, information needs and
uses have been undertaken. In the past, librarians may have been
able to base the development of new information services on the
flimsy conclusions of the handful of out-of-date surveys
supplemented by their own ‘intuitive grasp of the information-
seeking process, [of the art historian] resulting from their own
scholarly activity and their observation of users’, (Stam, 1984: 117)
but this approach will no longer suffice. Current research that
underlines the importance of the social aspects of the user group
must be taken into consideration when designing digital information
resources. (Covi, 1996) Research and scholarship is the core activity
of art historical practice, yet these needs appear to have been
sacrificed by systems developers because they are complex and
costly. Michael Ester has declared that ‘no one is asking about, let
alone implementing, models of use that are sympathetic with the
way professionals work.’ (Ester, 1994: 23) Perhaps it is time for
scholars to voice their concerns more assertively and to participate
in the development of image databases.

It has been claimed that the real value of information technology is

its ability to support relationships and the collaboration which arises
out of them. (Schrage, 1991) The time may have come for a new
partnership between librarians and art historians. There is more
need than ever for librarians to understand the methods of scholarly
endeavour as well as teaching, and for scholars to understand and
value the contribution that librarians can make to their work in order
to ‘avoid the present danger that scholars and librarians will pursue
separate adventures in technology without coordination between
the two communities and without even elementary information
being exchanged...Fruitful dialogue, mutual respect and a keen
interest in each other’s work are all essential if we are to take full
advantage of new technologies.’ (Gorman, 1991:75)

Technological improvements in the last decade have raised the
expectations of art librarians, art historians and art museum
curators that significant benefits will result from their embracing the
digital conversion of information resources, in particular visual
materials, and pursuing network accessibility to cultural, archival
and research organisations. The technical issues involved in
realising the full potential of a digital networked information

© Jennifer Durran 1997 13

environment constitute far less of an obstacle than the institutional
ones. The established patterns of the art history discipline such as
the widespread use of photographic reproductions and a slow
uptake of technology constitute fundamental barriers to the
introduction of digital imaging technology, however it can be seen
that changes in some components of the scholarly communication
process indicate potential sites for breakthroughs.

An examination of assumptions underlying the conception of the

universally accessible digital image library reveals that, while many
of the problems experienced by users of the traditional photo-based
image library may be eventually eliminated, the persistent problems
will be exacerbated and new challenges created. Swanson’s model
of evolutionary change in libraries and information services allows
us to see the present proliferation of small, idiosyncratic imaging
activities in terms of the trial and-error-elimination process as
opposed to the oft-cited description of a ‘cacophony’ lacking a
unified direction. The cumulative effect of ongoing modest
developments in technology can initiate radical new possibilities as
much, if not more, than the broad sweep of revolutionary change in
which old structures and processes are discarded.

The needs of the core activities of the discipline - scholarship and

research - should be the prime focus of imaging projects as opposed
to the needs of the organisation. Librarians have so far been the
instigators of new systems not scholars who need to become more
involved. Now is the time to forge new partnerships between
librarians and academics. Leadership from professional and
scholarly associations and alliances is vital to the clarification of
priorities and the development of a clear sense of direction for the

© Jennifer Durran 1997 14


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About this paper

This paper is an abridged version of a research paper submitted for

the Master of Arts (Librarianship) degree which the author
completed at Monash University in 1996.

In 1997 it won for the author the inaugural Jean Arnot Memorial
Fellowship, an annual award administered by the State Library of
New South Wales for an outstanding original paper on any aspect of
librarianship. The award was presented at the Jean Arnot Memorial
Luncheon and Lecture at Parliament House, Sydney on 7 April 1997.

The paper was subsequently published in LASIE, vol 28, no.2. June
1997 14 – 27.

It has been cited in the following publications:

Bauer, Charly and Jane A. Carlin. “The Case for Collaboration:

The OhioLINK Digital Media Center,” in Digital Images and Art
Libraries in the Twenty-First Century. Ed: Susan Wyngaard.
Haworth Press, 2003, pp. 69-86.

© Jennifer Durran 1997 17

Henri, Janine Jacqueline. “Management, Public Service, and
Access Issues: Serving Special Collections in an Architecture
Branch Library,“ in The Twenty-first century Art Librarian. Ed.
Terrie L. Wilson. Haworth Press, 2003, pp 57-76.

About the author

Jennifer Durran, BA, Dip Ed, Grad Di p Lib, MA (Lib)

At the time of writing the author was Visual Arts Librarian at Monash
University, Melbourne,


© Jennifer Durran 1997 18