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Digital Images Come of Age

In recent years, large collections of digital images have become available for licensing, and institutions have created a growing body of digital images from their own collections. Subject specialist librarians from The University of California libraries as well as UC visual resource curators advocated for the California Digital Library to acquire several commercial collections of images, create a shared image database, and purchase presentation software for classroom use and formal visual analysis. The CDL has extensive experience in licensing and delivering textual materials such as electronic journals and abstracting and indexing databases, but digital images introduce a range of new issues for management and delivery.

CDL’s Image Demonstrator Project

The CDL elected to form the Image Demonstrator Project to deliver images from licensed, freely available, UC-owned images using Luna Imaging’s Insight software. The project assembled more than 240,000 images in a six-month period, focusing mostly on images supporting the study of art history, architecture, and cultural studies with a combination of unique research material and canonical collections for teaching. The UC libraries followed the CDL model of co-investing in licensed commercial collections, while two UC collaborative projects—the Museums and the Online Archive of California and the Library of UC Images—contributed unique material. A number of free collections came with the Insight software, contributed by other Insight customers.

While the UC project has specific components, leverages existing organizational structures and partnerships, and focuses on the UC community, the issues are similar to those encountered at other institutions as they provide digital images to their communities. At the April 2004 meeting of the Digital Library Federation, CDL co-presented with Pennsylvania State University, which has conducted a large-scale research project called the Visual Image User Study (VIUS). We found that except for differences in methodologies and institutional environments, we saw similar incentives, challenges, and unresolved issues. The VIUS project supplies data to back up many of the themes we saw in our small-scale focus groups, surveys, and personal anecdotes.

The CDL project has made progress on all of its stated goals, although a few areas are still under investigation. Some of the original assumptions about benefits and barriers have been borne out, but some surprises emerged as well. Overall, the value of collaboration to expand access, share expertise, and shoulder costs has been affirmed. Most of the challenges have revolved around how to create a productive environment for users.

“The core materials need to be digitized only once, allowing campuses to focus on adding the unique parts of their local collections and research interests to the shared database.”

The Image Demonstrator Project team conducted focus groups with 16 faculty and graduate students from the University of California’s Berkeley, Irvine, and Santa Barbara campuses, as well as informal interviews with other faculty who learned of the project. Even though most faculty members were not yet ready to incorporate digital images completely into the classroom, they believed that the use of digital images is inevitable, that there will be a period of parallel use of analog and digital images, and that their students will demand greater access to digital images. One initially skeptical graduate student was impressed enough to predict the death of the slide projector and was proven prescient when Kodak later announced it would no longer manufacture these staples of the art history classroom. Others began to think about how they would use the service, especially for study assignments for students outside the classroom.

Faculty Adoption of Image Services

“Content is king” has long been the mantra adhered to by libraries, and especially cited when it comes to digital images. Many faculty have accumulated their own personal collections to supplement institutional collections in support of their research and teaching interests. Until the core collections are available and there is an easy way to add their personal collections, it is unlikely that faculty will embrace fully the image service.

The Demonstrator project is providing a means to explore these two areas. The mere presence of the service has provided a focal point for visual resource curators and faculty to speculate on how to leverage the core collections held in common across the UC system. The core materials need to be digitized only once, allowing campuses to focus on adding the unique parts of their local collections and research interests to the shared database. While the mechanisms for carrying out such a collaborative effort are still to be determined, the possibilities are now visible. Faculty in the focus groups were pleasantly surprised to find images in their area of interest, but it is still unlikely there is sufficient depth to support all of their needs.

Image Demonstrator Project Goals

  • Conduct assessment of UC faculty and graduate students about using images in instruction and learning, and Insight's ability to meet their needs
  • Develop a collection policy and strategy for additions to the service
  • Assess workflow issues
  • Assess content management
  • Evaluate technical issues related to CDL hosting of Insight, including options for campuses to control different parts
  • Evaluate cross-collection searching capability
  • Evaluate personal collections feature

A faculty member from UC-Irvine participated in an early test of the personal collections feature of Insight. This feature supports data entry (ranging from simple to complex, depending on the user’s preference) and on-the-fly generation of image derivatives. Personal collections are immediately available for use alongside permanent collections, and may later be “promoted” to the permanent collection. While the technology is simple, the policies and support issues can be complex. Again, the Demonstrator project and the flexibility of the software provide a forum for beginning the discussions.

The importance of personal collections and the possibilities for integrating or aggregating them with institutional collections raise a host of policy and support questions. Faculty may not have formal descriptions or standards-based metadata for their collections, but they often have the knowledge to supply this information if others can capture it and standardize it as needed. Faculty are aware of copyright and intellectual property concerns, and seek guidance on appropriate protection of their own rights as well as permitted uses of other images. They are searching for mechanisms to share their collections, especially unique research-oriented content, with their colleagues yet protect their creative works and expressions. Librarians, visual resource curators, educational technologists, and others who support research and teaching are struggling to find the best ways to work together and in concert with faculty to support their needs.

Once users have discovered the images they need, they want to use them in different environments—including course Web sites, classroom presentations, or publications. Thus far, the model is for images to be bound fairly tightly to the delivery mechanism. There are options for exporting them to HTML and PowerPoint, and there are possibilities for deep linking to specific images or groups of images from other applications. But concern over intellectual property rights has caused software developers to limit use of the highest quality of images to within the application. The user might gather images from a number of sources for a particular purpose, but currently must settle for either lower-quality images or less capable tools in order to manipulate all images in the same environment.

Infrastructure Issues

Other challenges relate to the issue of “classroom readiness.” Art historians have long used dual slide projectors for pictorial study and formal analysis. In order to recreate this approach in the digital environment, it is necessary to install high-quality dual projection systems, pay attention to sightlines, blinds, and lighting, provide a professor’s podium with an appropriate computer setup and orientation, and ensure access to on-call technical support. So-called “smart classrooms” often miss the mark by using hotel conference centers or classroom setups appropriate for other disciplines as their models. Technical infrastructure that provides reliable network connectivity, adequate bandwidth, 24-hour access, and off-campus access is also essential. Access anytime, anywhere is an incentive to students and faculty as they fit preparation and study time into busy schedules.

User Concerns About Digital Images

Faculty who are not yet accustomed to using digital images have cited several common roadblocks in their adoption curve:

  • Uncomfortable with technology
  • Concerned that technology might
    not be trustworthy
  • Lack of time
  • Concern about image quality
  • Lack of smart classrooms
  • Copyright concerns
  • Already have substantial analog

Digital formats and technologies provide the tools, but institutions and individuals must adapt them to their own ways of working, teaching, and learning. As the software and collections of digital images mature, so must our approaches to managing and delivering them to students and faculty whose requirements and creativity in using these resources are usually one step ahead of us.


Image Demonstrator Project
A project of the California Digital Library to provide an online service that supports teaching and research with digital images

Insight (from Luna Imaging)
Image management and delivery software

Museums and the Online Archive of California (MOAC)
Digital records and images from California museums and cultural institutions

Library of University of California Images (LUCI)
The University of California’s inter-campus database of digital images for educational use

Digital Library Federation (DLF)
A consortium of libraries and related agencies dedicated to digital collection standards and practices

Visual Image User Study (VIUS)
Penn State University
A project to assess the needs for interdisciplinary image delivery at Penn State

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