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Art History Without Slides

Digital images offer professors flexibility in teaching, but creating collections is difficult

By Brock Read

Northampton, Mass.

Dana Leibsohn, an assistant professor of art at Smith College, is talking about Nazcan pottery in her survey course on pre-Columbian art. The rough surfaces of the vessels, she explains, reflect the rock-strewn deserts of the makers' Peruvian homeland.

She projects an image of a pot on the classroom's front wall. But instead of leaning toward the image and squinting to make out details of its texture, the students wait for the professor to zoom in, revealing the pot's irregularities.

The course is one of several at Smith that have done away with slides and traditional projectors in favor of an expensive but promising alternative: images stored on the college's computer network and digitally projected into lecture rooms. With the new technology, Ms. Leibsohn can zoom in on images, juxtapose them, and call up information about them, all through a computer and touch-sensitive screen built into her lectern.

The college's art department is putting digital imaging at the core of its teaching. Six of Smith's 16 art-history professors use the computerized slides, both in lectures and on course Web sites. The technology, professors say, has great promise. Lectures and class discussions can be made more flexible and free-form. And because images on the department's network are available anytime and from any computer, many professors find that students spend less time looking for images and more time looking at them.

Imaging technology might also bring what John Davis, chairman of Smith's art department, calls a culture change to his field. Professors at Smith envision taking a sharp turn away from the stereotype of art-history programs as fusty and isolated. They anticipate moving toward an interdisciplinary model, focusing on interdepartmental collaboration and open access.

Smith, however, is one of very few colleges aggressively incorporating digital images into its art-history program. Most institutions are moving in that direction only slowly, if at all. In large part, that is because building a digital-image collection is an expensive, time-consuming process, at least for now. Art libraries with small budgets find it difficult to justify extensive digitization while they still have traditional slides to acquire and maintain.

Some of the costs of digitization may eventually drop. At present, every institution building a digital collection creates its own catalog information for each slide -- a time-consuming process that could be skipped if large databases were available to many institutions. But colleges and museums have found their efforts to share images stalled by the fair-use provisions of copyright law, under which institutions can freely re-use the images only within their own walls. For digital imaging's impact to extend beyond small liberal-arts colleges, it must become more affordable and efficient, experts in the field agree.

A Teaching Tool

In 1999, administrators at Smith decided to make digital technology the centerpiece of a $30-million renovation of the Brown Fine Arts Center, which includes an art museum, art library, slide collection, and classrooms for both art-history and studio students.

So far, the college has created about 8,000 digital images, each scanned at high resolution from the art-history department's collection of slides and mounted photographs, as well as from museum holdings and textbooks. The images reside in a database on a pair of servers maintained by technologists working in the arts center.

Professors who use the computerized slides assemble reserves of digital images using relevant slides from the database. For lectures, they can create smaller folders from which they can quickly call up images. Because the database is searchable, professors and students can display any image at any time -- a feature that Ms. Leibsohn says is invaluable in promoting flexible discussions.

In class, she manipulates the images with a touch screen -- which directs a digital projector hanging from the ceiling -- and with her own laptop, on which she saves course notes and lists of images. Because the college has also put many of its art-history texts and resources online, she and her students can conduct most out-of-class research at their own computers.

Smith's commitment to digital imaging as a teaching tool is rare. Slide librarians at Yale have digitized about 15,000 documents, but those images are used primarily as online study tools for students, not as staples of the lecture hall. Other institutions, including Vassar College, are using imaging projects primarily to make their museums' collections more visible.

Professors and image archivists on the campuses where large-scale digitization efforts are under way argue that digital images are of sufficient quality to replace slides, thanks to high-resolution scanning-and-projection technology. "When I first saw the digital projections, I was very impressed. The images are just juicy on the screen," says Smith's Mr. Davis.

Imaging technology also allows students and professors to manipulate digital slides quickly. When Ms. Leibsohn zooms in on a pre-Columbian pot in class, a more detailed image loads in only a few seconds. She attributes the speed to the art department's sizable servers, along with software that zooms in on the selected portion without rendering the rest of the image.

James Mundy, a lecturer in art history at Vassar who is director of the college's Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, says digital imaging does for art historians what microscopy does for research scientists: It offers more control and more detail in examinations. "With digital details, you're seeing things that your mind does not choose to notice," he says.

The real key to digital images, says Susan Williams, curator of visual resources at Yale, is that they are always available to students, on the campus and off. "Students much prefer studying in dorm rooms to coming over and looking at slides or displays." There's a downside to such availability, she adds: Students spend less time at the image library's walls of mounted photographs of artworks. Those displays -- Yale's primitive equivalent of putting images on reserve -- have often sparked impromptu discussions and study sessions.

Smith's slide library, too, reports less student traffic since it made digital reserves available. That's not necessarily a bad thing, says Ms. Leibsohn. She argues that when students survey images from their own desks, they spend more time actually examining the artworks. "Students become better image readers," in papers and in class, she says. "They become adept at using visual evidence to support their claims."

Professors have been slower than students to embrace digital imaging. Few faculty members at Yale trust the underlying technology enough to build courses around it. Some find learning a new technology an uncomfortable and unnecessary process; others worry that the computer network will collapse, leaving them unprepared for lectures. "I feel it's quite reliable, but it's going to take a culture change," says Ms. Williams. "As graduate students become more adept and confident, they will pass that along to the faculty."

Finessing Fair-Use

Neither Smith nor Yale wants to rush professors into using the technology. For one thing, librarians at Smith estimate that they have the time and resources to digitize images for no more than several classes a year.

But professors who shy away from digital images still plan their lectures and conduct research with traditional slides. Maintaining those collections while expanding digital ones is a tall order for libraries on tight budgets.

Digital collections are expensive to start -- high-resolution scanning requires high-end equipment. And institutional studies have found that the collections are costly to expand as well. Mr. Mundy says Vassar spends $9,000 a month for work on its archive.

Smith's digital collection has been paid for, in part, by an initial grant of $300,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Yale and Vassar jump-started their archives with grant money, too. But as image digitization becomes less novel, grant money may dry up, leaving colleges to make difficult budgetary decisions.

Yale's slide library has already stopped photographing artworks from textbooks to display on the image library's walls, except when specifically requested by professors. That's one of several sacrifices made to free librarians for cataloging, a process that represents the bulk of the work in building digital collections.

Scanning items actually takes little time, but cataloging them is another matter. To make the digital images useful and searchable, colleges must enter information about the artworks represented, the artists who created them, and the culture and date from which they come, among other data. "It's caused stress, and we've had to increase our staff," says Ms. Williams.

Ms. Williams and Elisa Lanzi, director of Smith's image collections, say the solution is simple: Colleges need to develop a national framework for sharing catalog records. Many institutions digitize identical documents, but each enters its own records, duplicating labor and creating potentially contradictory catalog data.

Slide librarians hope that an effort started by the Visual Resource Association, a nonprofit consortium of image-management professionals, will offer them a set of standardized records. Ms. Lanzi, the group's president, says such a database would allow slide librarians to use "copy cataloging," much as the Online Computer Library Center has done for campus librarians who create catalogs of books.

Even then, many institutions may not want to undertake the process of building a digital-image collection on their own. "The future will be about subscribing to various products rather than the in-house works," says Ms. Williams.

Yale and Smith bolster their traditional slide holdings by paying vendors for general collections. They also license the rights to digital archives through vendors. The largest such licenser, the Art Museum Image Consortium, includes more than 100,000 images, culled from public, private, and institutional museums worldwide. But even Amico, as the consortium is known, is only "a piece of the encyclopedia," says Ms. Lanzi. And it offers little hope for image-sharing between institutions because they must pay an enrollment-based fee either to receive images or to submit them to the database.

Smith and Yale have been unable to share digital images through other venues because of fair-use laws, under which colleges are allowed to use, at no cost, images of artworks that they cannot acquire at a reasonable price. But the institutions are prohibited from using the images outside of their own walls because rights to the images themselves belong to museums and, sometimes, individual photographers.

As a result, Smith cannot share its digital collection even with neighboring members of its five-college consortium. "You're always up against this copyright issue," Ms. Lanzi says. "Many institutions are scanning the same images over and over -- and it's a very expensive duplication of effort."

A possible solution, she says, is ArtSTOR, a nonprofit project begun last year by the Mellon foundation, which aims to create a legal haven for digital images. The organization is digitizing 225,000 images from the slide collection of the University of California at San Diego and preparing to test the enforcement of fair-use policies.

Until colleges and museums can finesse fair-use restrictions, Ms. Lanzi says, the future of art-history pedagogy may be hamstrung. "How many times do we have to scan the 'Mona Lisa'?" she asks. "Once, hopefully."


Building a digital-image collection can be time-consuming and expensive, but several colleges and arts organizations have deemed it worth the cost. Following are some of the leading digital-imaging projects:

Smith College
Size: About 8,500 images
Sources: Slides, photographs, textbooks, and museum holdings
Financing: Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Vassar College
Size: About 5,000 images are being scanned and prepared for use.
Sources: Museum holdings
Financing: Independent grants

Yale University
Size: About 21,000 images
Sources: Slides, photographs, textbooks, and museum holdings
Financing: Library and university funds

Art Museum Image Consortium
Role: The consortium sells licenses for the use of digital images from its archives to colleges and arts organizations.
Size: More than 100,000 images
Sources: An international selection of public, private, and institutional museums

Section: Information Technology Volume 49, Issue 20, Page A29

-- Edward Tufte

Dear ET,

Path of Beauty is a short film directed by Florent Igla that follows a young woman walking around a completely deserted Louvre (

Having a single human being within an otherwise completely empty Louvre gives an idea of the vast scale of many of the galleries and artworks.

This still shows the young woman sitting in front of the "Raft of the Medusa" by Theodore GERICAULT (Rouen, 1791 - Paris, 1824). The painting is really large, being over 7 metres wide, and figures in the foreground are larger than life size. A detailed description of the painting can be found on Wikipedia.

Best wishes


-- Matt R (email)

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