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Futures Past: Twenty Years of Arts Computing


Vickie O’Riordan, University of California, San Diego, USA

This is the Modern World; Collaborating with ARTstor

Keywords: slide collections, digitisation, collaboration, University of California, San Diego (UCSD) Arts Libraries, ARTStor

Many of us working in visual resources today are simultaneously creating and curating duel image collections: we are caught somewhere between the old analogue slide and its digital future. While it is fairly easy to take old media and spin them like alchemy into something new, to remake our slide collections over into digital collections, it is all the things associated with this transformation – funding, higher level staffing, issues of copyright, metadata creation and access, digital storage and preservation – that make this process complex. Sharing expertise in these areas will help propel us into the digital future. Collaborative efforts create opportunities and products that are often impossible to achieve at a single institution.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines collaboration as ‘united labour’. This beautiful term brings up a sense of both equal work and equal reward, of efforts shared and, at the same time, enriched. Certainly this is a good description of the work between the University of California, San Diego and ARTstor.

A grant from the Mellon Foundation enabled UC San Diego to contribute over 200,000 images and accompanying cataloguing data from the UCSD Library’s slide collection to ARTstor’s Digital Library. On the one hand, the grant resulted in a rather simple exchange of goods. Collaborating with ARTstor gave UCSD a copy of the high quality digital images created for the grant. In turn, ARTstor, working with UCSD, quickly amassed the initial material they needed to seed ARTstor’s Image Gallery. Successful collaborations are never limited simply to the products they create. While this paper is concerned with the activities of the grant, I am also interested in the areas that surround it. What made the UCSD Libraries an attractive partner for ARTstor? What were our experiences working with ARTstor’s metadata team and what were the lessons learned during the year-long beta test of ARTstor on our campus?

The UCSD slide collection

The UCSD slide collection goes back to the very early days of the campus in the late 1960s and the creation of the Visual Arts Department which was an early and important contributor to the collection. The department was highly theoretical and their mission, in part, was to break down the boundaries separating artists, art historians, and art critics. This goal and the ephemeral nature of the art being created by the faculty at the time guaranteed that the images requested to support instruction would be both broad and eclectic.

At the same time, because the slide collection was part of the library, its mandate was to serve the entire campus and images were requested to support all academic departments. So along with traditional art images one could just as easily discover a page documenting poses during a fit of hysteria for the Sociology Department, a poster for the film Willie Dynamite ordered by a Communication professor teaching a class on Blaxploitation films, or a series of falsified photographs documenting Stalin’s elimination of his rivals for the History Department. Since patrons came from all disciplines it was important to offer effective ways to search the collection, from the expert art historian to the first time undergraduate user. For example, physicians from the School of Medicine looking for images to help illustrate their lecture on smallpox might want to find an illustration from an Aztec codex documenting the disease.

So when the slide collection went online in 1986 the decision was made at that time to create a full catalogue record for each slide in the collection, and to include subject headings. And though this early version of the slide database was an efficient tool for the cataloguers, offering linked authority records and specialised templates for hundreds of media, it was a far less effective database for patron use. All subject headings were entered as a simple string of terms and separated by commas. In fact, personal names could only be entered in direct order. At the same time, these subject terms were notoriously difficult to retrieve. Searches for all records with the subject ‘portraits’ would have to be mediated by a cataloguer who would write a query for a report that would take several hours to run. This meant there was no easy way for patrons to find images under a specific subject or for the cataloguers themselves to quickly check previously-used subject terms.

All this would change in the mid 1990s when the library made the decision to move the image records into the UCSD Libraries online catalogue. The goal was to unite all the specialised templates to one ‘ideal’ record. This was difficult task because it required moving from a relational database to a flat file. A team was formed consisting of both image and book cataloguers working together to convert the image records into the universal library language of MARC.

This new world of book cataloguing seemed overly restrictive and somewhat bizarre to the image cataloguers. Up to this point the UCSD image cataloguers had always done their work in relative isolation and followed their own local rules and practices. Now the image cataloguers were introduced to a world where rules, no matter how strange, had to be obeyed. If using ‘Ray, Man’ as an authority heading for the artist Man Ray, or separating and renaming the Starn Twins to Doug and Mike seemed silly and the rule was ignored, the image cataloguers quickly heard from a section in the library’s catalogue department called database maintenance. Here all rules were enforced.

Though difficult for the cataloguers at first, this move to the wider world of the library was essentially a positive one. The image cataloguers lost the extensive linked authority records and specialised templates of their old database, but the shift to the library catalogue offered more opportunities to unite the data and resolve redundancies in both name and subject headings. Now all subject terms were divided into four separate indices and the source of the terms used was indicated by an assigned number. This resulted in a cleaner database which offered far more efficient searching with immediate results. A patron interested in finding all images with the subject ‘history painting’ could now click on the link to find all uses of the term in the collection.

On a more mundane level, each slide in the collection was now given a barcode which allowed an easy method to track not only usage but its physical status and its disposition during its lifetime – whether it was discoloured, lost, or re-shot. This information led to a more consistent form of slide and record maintenance. So, when ARTstor looked for a partner they found at UCSD a relatively young and well-maintained slide collection. The collection contained a broad range of images with a complete catalogue record for every slide in a universally accepted and well-known format. A full online cataloguing manual was available to explain the logic of the collection. In addition, each slide had the all-important barcode which would keep track of the physical collection during the grant phase and would prove essential later as the unique identifier used to unite the digital images back with their cataloguing data.

The Grant

Work on the grant started in early 2002 and was done at UCSD primarily by the Visual Resources staff with some technical help from the Library’s Information Technology Department. The grant required a continual cycle of shipping and receiving 25,000 slides per month. The slides were pulled, cleaned and packed into bins. The library’s bindery truck delivered the slides to a vendor located in Los Angeles selected by ARTstor.

The physical pulling, cleaning, packing and unpacking of the slides were time consuming, but essentially not difficult. Grant money had allowed UCSD to hire a small army of student workers and to refashion an area of the Visual Resources Collection specifically for this work. The fact that the Visual Resources Collection remained open and the slides were continuously used by faculty and students during the years of the grant required a high level of communication between UCSD, ARTstor and the vendor. Obviously deciding which groups of slides could leave campus for a two-month period had to be driven exclusively by faculty use.

The decision to send what and when became something of a war-room activity for the Visual Resources staff. Many hours were spent searching class schedules and previous course outlines for clues to project use, and of course, we worked closely with the faculty and asked for their feedback.

The ARTstor staff made this piece of the grant work far easier for the Visual Resources staff by being totally committed to the needs of the faculty at UCSD. And so, while it may have been better for ARTstor to receive a slide shipment of Italian painting, they were wonderfully gracious when we sent postcard art and ice sculpture instead.

After amassing and parsing out all the projected slide deliveries a project website was created. The online schedule page was heavily used by the faculty as it detailed the group of slides to be sent, dates of slide departures and arrivals back on campus.

In the end a bigger issue than sending slides off site appeared. Initial quality control was to be done by the Visual Resources staff since we had the original source material. Once the vendor had scanned the images the digital files were delivered to UCSD on drives. Files of that size and type were relatively new to the library and a system to run check sums and load the files to the library servers took some time to put into place. By the time the Visual Resources staff could see the images, there was a small backlog of drives. Once the quality control work started we discovered that during the vendor’s post process work the editors were sometimes over enthusiastic in their ‘enhancement’ of the digital images.

The Visual Resources staff realised that quality control would have to be more intensive than previously planned and, when needed, a system of re-scanning be put in place. During this period the ARTstor staff had been hard at work creating a robust digital asset management system, or DAM, to keep track of all aspects of the work on the digital files. ARTstor greatly facilitated our efforts at quality control by allowing us to hire additional staff and generously permitted the Visual Resources staff partial use of the ARTstor DAM. This helped the Visual Resources staff to keep track of a series of scans and re-scans which required a delicate and synchronised method of file deletions and additions between UCSD, the vendor and ARTstor.


Along with images the Visual Resources Collection also supplied the accompanying cataloguing data to ARTstor. Our collaboration with the metadata team at ARTstor and their analysis of our work was truly a revelation to the image cataloguers at UCSD. Our collaboration with the metadata team allowed us to see our records in an entirely new light. Having been through one major re-mapping of the UCSD image records, the cataloguers felt there was little more to learn about the UCSD image data. But ARTstor’s Emerson Morgan was not only a metadata genius; he was also wickedly thorough in his analysis of our records.

The ARTstor metadata team as a whole was ingenious at running reports that revealed both human and machine errors in our records. These efforts by ARTstor allowed the image cataloguers to clean up certain errors which up to this point had been overlooked, given the limitations of running these same types of reports in the library database.

This part of our collaboration with ARTstor also gave the image cataloguers the opportunity and the support to work on a long-desired clean up project as well as newly recognised enhancements to the cataloguing data. Our work in creating a clean, useful and searchable image catalogue which started with the move to the library database was extended and greatly improved in our collaboration with ARTstor.

The Beta Test

Finally, this collaborative spirit was carried on into the ARTstor beta test. During the test the Visual Resources staff worked with an entirely new ARTstor team and found the same sense of openness and generosity. In some ways UCSD was in a unique position to give ARTstor feedback since many of the records from the Visual Resources Collection made up ARTstor’s Image Gallery at that time.

Our remote location, though, presented a real challenge to the ARTstor team. The other twelve beta test sites were located in and around the New York area. Our location on the west coast required that the ARTstor team tackle issues effectively, not only from a great distance but often under serious time constraints. The ARTstor staff had to be extremely responsive – this was especially true for the technical staff. They didn’t have the luxury of an easy site visit to untangle any complex technical issues that might come up during the testing period.

The most important lesson we learned during the year-long beta test was that faculty were truly interested in learning about and using new technology. This was especially true if it made them more effective in their teaching and more efficient in their classroom preparation. At the same time they had little patience for technology that did not work well the first time. They had even less patience for technical malfunctions that interrupted the flow of a lecture. To be successful in our beta test at UCSD, we knew we would have to have everything running smoothly long before the faculty ever arrived in the classroom.

The beta test became a wider collaboration at this point. Using digital images requires ‘smart’ classrooms and we are fortunate at UCSD to have them campus wide. Making ‘smart’ classrooms work required effective collaboration with many campus departments, such as the Media Centre, Office of Network Operations, and Academic Computing. The ARTstor team played well with these various campus departments; they were able to speak their language and follow through when asked to make technical adjustments that were specific to the needs of UCSD.

During fall quarter we worked with Marta Hanson, a history professor teaching an undergraduate class on Chinese culture and civilization. Professor Hanson’s excitement at discovering a tool like ARTstor where she could search a wealth of images, easily create groups and folders, and then manipulate the images in the classroom (in ways previously impossible with slides) was quickly conveyed to fellow faculty members and by winter quarter we had increased our user base. With the increased faculty use during winter quarter UCSD was able to give the ARTstor team some excellent feedback on both tools and the generally usability of ARTstor’s Digital Library. In turn, the ARTstor staff was quick to respond with a series of requested enhancements.

The real test of ARTstor, though, came in spring quarter when we worked with Rita Keene, a faculty member teaching a large undergraduate Art History survey class. This class had over two hundred students and five teaching assistants leading seven additional study sections each week. Training the five teaching assistants revealed a microcosm of users. The graduate students ranged from the intensely computer literate, as one would expect, to several less than interested in anything technical. The fact that all five graduate students were using ARTstor well within a day or two of training speaks to its ease of use.

Due to the size of Professor Keene’s class we knew this would be a terrific test of ARTstor’s reliability, and since ARTstor would also be the only access for Professor Keane’s students to study the required class images, we viewed this class as a true test of ARTstor’s scalability. In early April 2003, right before midterms, the students started to log on to ARTstor to study the class images and there was a steep increase in use. I am proud to say that UCSD, in the spirit of true collaboration, gave ARTstor an excellent test of usage and capacity-planning. Even with the tremendous spike in use, the students were able to view the study images.

On the other hand, off-site connectivity was an ongoing issue during the test period. This is more of a campus rather than an ARTstor problem. Most users, faculty and students alike, would rather prepare for class off-campus.

At UCSD the Office of Network Operations (ONO) is in charge of campus network security. At the same time it acts as the official gatekeeper for faculty and students attempting to connect to licensed databases off-site. In this sense ONO is a profoundly conflicted department. While offering a dazzling array of ways to connect off-campus, they are deeply pessimistic about one’s ability to do so.

To help ARTstor users at UCSD we created a page that walks them through ONO’s proxy process step by step. While not a perfect solution, this resulted in fewer problems with our proxy connections. Difficulties with off-site access are not just an issue for UCSD. This is a much larger problem that needs to be addressed. In a perfect world it should be easy and ‘invisible’ to the user when connecting to any licensed databases from anywhere. In a further collaboration with ARTstor, the UCSD Libraries hope to test an authentication system called Shibboleth as a means of trying to improve off-campus access.

We surveyed the students at the end of Professor Keene’s class. What we had suspected about use was confirmed by the results. Most of ARTstor’s use came from off campus. We also discovered that keyword was by far the method of choice when searching for images in ARTstor which is pretty ironic given all our hard work on the perfect subject heading.

The satisfaction rate of ARTstor from our student survey was high. They especially liked ARTstor’s ‘image group print preview’ function which gives them a quick and printable flash card for study purposes. The introduction during spring quarter of ARTstor’s ‘Offline Image Viewer’ (OLV) was a major turning point for our faculty. Even those dedicated to PowerPoint quickly deserted it as the Offline Viewer offered the offline safety net they craved with far more functionality than PowerPoint.

The recent enhancement which allows users of the OLV to upload their personal images into ARTstor is something the faculty at UCSD have long seen as essential to their digital needs.

I began my paper by stating that successful collaborations are never limited simply to the products they create. In fact our metadata from the grant has been utilised in two significant collaborations. A grant from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provided the funding for collaboration between the UCSD Libraries, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and the libraries at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Work on the grant will integrate two systems, the Storage Resource Broker and DSpace, which will work together to collect, manage, store and disseminate digital objects more effectively. The UCAI project, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation, is working on the creation of a large-scale union catalogue for image metadata which will reduce redundancies in image cataloguing.

UCSD is just one of many partners working with ARTstor, but our collaboration with them has fundamentally changed for the better the way faculty and students use images. Our united labour proves that the digital future of shared collections and expertise is viable.

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