Digital Image Distribution: A Study of Costs and
UCLA School of Education & Information
As we construct new electronic information delivery systems, what are
the implications of merging content and metadata from multiple sources?
How do the costs and services in a digital distribution scheme differ from
those in an analog one? What steps can we take to entice users who currently
rely upon analog resources to begin seriously employing digital resources?
These are a few of the key questions explored in a UC Berkeley study
entitled The Cost of Digital Image Distribution: The Social and Economic
Implications of the Production, Distribution, and Usage of Image Data.
This study, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, examined an experimental
multi-site image distribution scheme ó The Museum Educational Site Licensing
Project. Though the content explored was primarily digital images and accompanying
metadata, many parts of the study may prove useful even to segments of
the digital library community who deal solely with text-based content.
Areas explored by the study include: an examination of faculty users
and identification of steps that might be taken to get them to employ digital
content in their teaching and research; a comparison of costs and services
provided by current analog content distribution schemes to the costs and
services of both this experimental digital distribution scheme and to likely
production-level digital distribution; the division of the process of digital
content production and distribution into cost centers in such a way that
costs can be compared to very different distribution schemes (where an
individual cost center might be taken over by a completely different player
in the production/distribution cycle); a look at the implications of hybrid
environments where users of digital distribution schemes must continue
to get part of their content in analog form.
The full study, co-authored by Howard Besser and Robert Yamashita, explores
these and a number of other issues important to the digital library community.
The full text of the study is avaliable at http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Imaging/Databases/1998mellon/.
The text below first frames the study and the project that forms the centerpiece
of the study, then summarizes selected portions of the findings.
Background and Framing
The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL)
was the first large-scale attempt to take a collection of images and accompanying
metadata from a variety of museums and deliver these in digital form to
university users over campus networks. Begun 1995, it was a multi-year
experimental collaboration among seven museums (acting as content providers)
and seven universities (acting as content users) that distributed a dataset
of approximately 10,000 digital images and associated descriptive metadata
for classroom use. The identical dataset was mounted at each of the participating
universities, each using delivery and query systems of their choice
Over the course of the MESL project, the participants
explored standards and mechanisms for exchanging images and data between
institutions, mounting and delivering this information to university users,
developing tools for incorporating images and data into the instructional
process, and developing parameters for licensing of this type of content.
Much has been written about the project, including papers on the technical
issues, #f2 retrieval
issues, #f3 and extensive
reports from project participants. #f4
In late 1996, UC Berkeley researchers began a set
of studies directed at the MESL Project, as well as at some of the landscape
surrounding it. The focus of the study was to identify, define, and explore
the primary cost centers in the digital network distribution of images
and text through the MESL Project. In addition, the study analyzed the
costs of running conventional analog slide libraries, and examined the
difficulties facing faculty trying to teach with digital images.
The full report contains studies of costs involved
in digital content distribution through the MESL project. Attempts are
made to divide these between implementation and operational costs, and
to speculate as to how these costs will change due to increased experience,
technological developments, and differing distribution schemes.
In addition, the report incorporates studies of costs
and functions associated with analog slide libraries, as well as circulation
patterns that these collections face. And it compares these costs and functions
to those under MESL as well as to the future digital distribution schemes
that are likely to follow the MESL experiment.
Because any university digital content distribution
scheme would fail unless embraced by university instructors, the report
also contains a study designed to explore the factors influencing faculty
willingness to "buy in" to digital distribution and use digital images
Findings: General Observations
MESL demonstrated that while some factors encourage
the use of multi-institutional digital image databases of cultural heritage
objects, there are also significant barriers to their widespread use. The
following are critical observations and suggestions in the areas of viewing,
content, searching and access, technology, infrastructure, and policy.
The digital distribution environment, as a whole, appears
to be good for individual usage, and provides access from multiple locations.
Most users' home environments are currently inadequate for comfortable
use of digital images, but that should change with increased bandwidth,
processing power, and screen size. We are even beginning to see wired dormitories
as part of campus networks. Shifts to off-site use may alleviate the need
for more on-campus computer labs, but will require more sophisticated user
authentication systems. However, groups that are not central to the university
mission (e.g. alumni, visiting faculty, other visitors) which currently
enjoy walk-in access to analog resources may lose access to these additional
resources altogether, as authentication systems and licensing arrangements
for digital materials become able to distinguish more finely between user
Digital image distribution in its existing form is problematic
for group viewing situations, such as in the classroom, where analog delivery
is simple, fast, cheap, dependable, and requires little technological infrastructure.
Electronic classrooms, computing and network infrastructure, technical
and instructional support, and image quality issues need to be addressed
before digital distribution to the classroom becomes viable.
The lack of comprehensive content made the database
extremely problematic for coursework purposes. For a digital image distribution
scheme to be successful, a repository must be able to provide a critical
core of important images, what Clifford Lynch has called a "reference collection."
Most significantly, the definition of "critical core" is likely to be dynamic.
New approaches to disciplinary understanding are constantly changing what
is considered to be central material for pedagogical purposes (for example
"popular art" and "art and gender"). For most users, even a critical core
will not offer a comprehensive corpus. Many faculty teaching with MESL
images vocalized a need for a "critical mass" of images that would approach
the corpus size of their analog slide libraries.
Because faculty content needs can be robust and shifting,
a digital image distribution scheme will almost certainly also need to
give faculty the option of integrating locally produced material. (Many
MESL universities reported having to supplement the MESL database with
custom images drawn from their slide libraries.) Future systems must be
both extensible and easy to supplement.
The different metadata vocabulary and general language
used by different institutions made the creation of an integrated and consistent
database problematic at best. It is glaringly evident that a project like
this needs guidelines and standards at many levels (from field delimiters
to controlled vocabulary), and that the
standards developed within MESL were not, by themselves, enough. And it
is likely that this type of problem will increase as the corpus or domain
of coverage scales up. The MESL data dictionary managed to map actual field
names into a common exchange format, but the project neither addressed
what those field names meant to the body of end users, nor addressed the
differing ways in which the contributing repositories used vocabulary within
a given field. And since most object metadata was taken from legacy records,
most vocabulary was in the language used by museum curators and registrars.
Digital distribution schemes like this could be much more effective if
we better understood vocabulary issues in general: how to translate the
specialized vocabulary used by specialists into the vernacular used by
general users, and how to better map between the various knowledge organization
frameworks of different domains.
The interface and the ability to query and manipulate
the database is critical for future use. Additional tools for examining,
organizing, and saving retrieved sets are also necessary. The MESL model
of localized control over distribution discouraged development of expensive
retrieval systems. A more centralized model would be able to spread the
development costs over a wide body of sites, and would likely lead to better
retrieval tools. But local customization of such a system may still be
desirable, and this poses an interesting research issue in system design.
There is much university enthusiasm for the use of digital
surrogates for cultural heritage material, but many problems must still
be addressed before there is widespread end-user acceptance. Instructors
are particularly concerned about lack of departmental recognition for what,
in their experience, has been a vastly increased workload from teaching
with digital images. Tools need to be developed to make digital images
easier to use and particularly to make it easier to use them to build curriculum
material. But who in the institution will have the responsibility, funding,
and expertise to develop these tools is a serious question. Will this be
the responsibility of the central library, the departmental library, central
computer services, or the individual instructor?
Audiences for a museum's digital information also exist
outside the university community. All involved hope that museums can leverage
their efforts at digital distribution to universities to help them deliver
to additional audiences. But museums need to take into consideration the
special needs of those additional audiences, paying particular attention
to the need for different descriptive vocabulary and for organizing sets
of images contextually. For instance, the large K-12 community probably
needs thematic arrangements of images complete with descriptive information
in vocabularies much different than those of curators or art historians.
Museum consortia should consider encouraging teachers and others to create
added-value packages that can then be redistributed to others.
Copyright issues are significant. Museums tend to be
cautious about distributing digital images of works unless they are absolutely
certain about rights clearance on the original work (though through the
MESL project some museums became less strict about this). Because current
copyright law leaves reproduction rights for original works with the artist's
estate for some period after the artist's death, and because most museums
have not explicitly obtained digital reproduction rights when acquiring
a work for their collection, few 20th-century works will be distributed
in digital form by museums for some time to come.
The value that museums can provide to universities in
projects like MESL may lie more in the authoritative metadata than in the
digital images themselves, and it is a mistake to view these as merely
imaging projects. The expertise of the museum in the form of authoritative
metadata describing an object and its context is critical for scholarly
Findings: Comparing Digital to Analog
The study of analog slide libraries has shed some light
on certain functions that exist in the analog versus the digital distribution
environment, and has also demonstrated how certain cost centers may differ
between these environments. Our study of the analog environment was not
extensive enough to answer all the important questions, but it answered
some and suggested further comparative studies that should be undertaken:
Analog slide libraries provide a valuable set of services,
some of which would be lost in currently emerging models for digital distribution.
Slide libraries are customized for their local environments and metadata
is customized to meet local needs. Acquisition is end-user driven, and
responds quickly to local user demands. A research agenda for digital distribution
schemes should consider how future models might support these types of
Not all images needed by university users are of the
sort held by museums. Therefore the university's image needs extend beyond
what can be met through museum distribution consortia. Cultural heritage
slide libraries often include images from architecture, religious structures
(churches), popular culture, private collections, public site-specific
art (cemetery art, monuments, fountains), lesser-known and local artists,
and community-based art (such as murals). Collections also frequently include
other types of images to provide context for a time period, place, style,
Analog slide libraries are primarily based in individual
campus departments. Digital distribution schemes, however, are likely to
be housed in or contracted by campus-wide units. Therefore funding schemes
and institutional roles and responsibilities will be much different than
the departmental models that characterize slide libraries. This makes comparisons
and predictions very difficult.
As we discover some of the types of functionality that
users of analog slide libraries find useful and perhaps necessary (such
as slide-sorting functions), we can outline some of the functions that
digital image libraries are likely to need in order to attract and retain
users. Further study of user behavior in selecting and arranging slides
for classroom presentation will be helpful in determining functional requirements
for desktop toolsets.
Circulation statistics from analog slide libraries can
give us benchmarks against which to compare likely overall use of digital
image libraries, and indicate likely periods of heavy use. We know that
digital delivery removes time and location constraints that limit analog
slide use, and we expect that use will increase once digital delivery systems
are adopted by users. We also know that use will increase as these collections
begin to serve users outside of core departments. As long as digital image
collections still strain systems resources, this analog use data can help
system architects and planners by suggesting times and levels of high activity.
Our study has revealed a small but significant group
of analog slide users that come from outside the primary slide library
community. We can expect that these numbers will increase in a digital
world where gaining access does not involve visiting an analog slide library
located in a particular academic department.
We know that some analog slide library costs (such as
re-filing) are just not applicable to a digital environment. If we know
how significant those costs are, we can begin to discuss likely cost savings
in a digital environment. Our analog study suggests that while the amount
of time involved in re-filing is significant, the actual cost of this effort
is not great due to the use of low-paid personnel. But we have no idea
of the impact of misfiled or lost slides on scholarship.
Our study of MESL identified broad cost centers for
the image providers in the preparation process (content selection, image
preparation, text data preparation, image transmission, and text data transmission)
as well as for the image distributors in the delivery and deployment processes
(preparing images, preparing structured text data, preparing unstructured
data, creating functionality tools, providing security/access control,
outreach, usage training, and technical development). This study of MESL
cost centers and related studies of analog slide libraries and faculty
attitudes shed light on a number of interesting issues. Administrators
and others involved in planning digital distribution should be particularly
interested in the following observations:
University administrators are very concerned about controlling
content costs, and faculty are concerned about ensuring access to images
around which they can build curricula. These positions put them in conflict
with museum image distribution consortia that want an ongoing stream of
revenue and are understandably reluctant to guarantee ongoing access without
payment. Positions must change for consortia efforts to be successful.
(For example, museums may decide to heavily subsidize consortia efforts
with revenue from traditional sources such as licensing images to publicity
agencies. Or university administrators may decide that they can perpetually
commit funds for licensing images from museum consortia.) Recent initiatives
such as the Association of Research Libraries' Scholarly Publishing &
Academic Resources Coalition #f6
may offer interesting models to follow.
It will be a long time before digital image repositories
will be able to deliver to users the critical mass of images needed for
instruction and research. (Though critical mass size is difficult to estimate
and will vary among potential user communities, for most user groups we
expect that critical mass will have to exceed the holdings of a moderate-size
analog slide library-250,000 images.) It is clear that analog slide libraries
and digital image repositories will coexist for many years into the future.
Planners must assume a hybrid form of image distribution, and may be hard-pressed
to determine how best to allocate resources between the two. In cases where
analog slide libraries exist within the same organizational structures
as digital collections (e.g. libraries), there may be a strong impulse
to redirect funding from the former to the latter, with serious consequences
for the overall mix of resource availability. But if, instead, central
library acquisition budgets are used to underwrite image collections, this
may affect other areas of collections development. Libraries, slide collections,
and administrators would be well served by joining together to articulate
an overall strategy for image provision in this transitional phase which
acknowledges the competition for scarce resources.
While analog slide libraries have been managed primarily
by individual departments, digital collections are likely to be managed
by campus-wide units (such as libraries, computer centers, and instructional
technology units). This is likely to force changes in resource allocation,
as well as in subject-matter specialization and support services.
Museum consortia planning digital distribution expect
to deliver images and metadata directly to the user's desktop, rather than
having universities act as redistributors as in the MESL Project. While
there are compelling reasons to follow this model (better control, lack
of duplication of the tremendous effort of local mounting, etc.), consortia
implementers would be wise to consider the provision of some local mounting
and control functions. University users are likely to expect the features
and capabilities they have with analog slides to be available with digital
images as well. Key issues for the universities include how to integrate
consortia-provided images and metadata with images acquired elsewhere;
how to allow instructors to change descriptive information or annotate
images; how to encourage the creation of added-value tools; and how to
provide particular user interfaces or new integrated tools (such as slide
sorting, saved sets, image overlays, or image comparisons) to a group of
campus users. In many ways this issue of local versus central mounting
is similar to the issue of whether university libraries should mount copies
of scholarly journals or arrange for their users to get these directly
from the publisher's website. But a key difference is that contemporary
scholarly practice for the cultural heritage community requires many images
outside a central corpus, and instruction in this community frequently
requires supplemental descriptive information.
Many of the costs during the MESL project were start-up
and learning costs that would not be incurred on an ongoing basis. But
the data suggests that some types of costs (such as support) will only
decline slightly in subsequent years. Cost centers that would normally
tend to decrease with greater experience may in fact increase as the underlying
technology periodically changes and brings new costs to bear. (For example,
changes in system architecture, such as moving to a new better/faster underlying
database, may cause an increase in text and image preparation costs. We
saw significant cost increases when MESL sites changed to Web-based delivery.)
And certain costs will increase because the size and scope of the project
increases (for example, delivery to a larger user population, such as alumni
or other non-students, may necessitate a much more sophisticated?and expensive?approach
A cursory look at analog distribution costs may be deceptive;
accurate costs should be balanced against potential use. As studies of
electronic versus print journals have speculated, costs for electronic
resources need to be weighed against a very different access parameter
than that used for analog resources. Although analog systems may be cheaper
to maintain, there are many more potential users for a digital system than
for an analog one.
Digital image distribution models can provide access
to materials that have had only limited accessibility in the past. But
from the MESL data it is still not clear whether digital access is likely
to be cost effective anytime soon. But we do agree with Bates that, in
the long run, "for the same dollar expenditure (as in pre-technological
environments) learning effectiveness can be increased, or more students
can be taught to the same level of investments." #f7
In other words, we are skeptical about costs significantly diminishing
(although we believe that they may move to other points along the chain),
but we are optimistic about technology leading to more widespread learning.
We believe that the MESL Project was one of the first
steps in a transition towards digital image libraries, and that digital
collections may eventually replace analog slide libraries. Our study of
MESL has revealed some of the differences between slide libraries and digital
distribution schemes, and has identified some of the problems that must
be resolved before digital image distribution is widely accepted. This
study has uncovered important information for designers of digital image
distribution schemes. We have highlighted issues of cost, content, infrastructure,
and user acceptance. We have shown the serious access issues that emerge
from combining text records from museums that use different forms of vocabulary
control, and have demonstrated that different distribution approaches towards
indexing can yield vastly different search results. We have noted how analog
slide libraries differ from any digital image distribution scheme proposed
thus far. And we have expressed concerns about where digital image distribution
schemes might fit within an institutional hierarchy.
We believe that, in the long run, it will be difficult
to financially justify repetitive isolated collections of images on different
university campuses. Yet, the tailoring of local collections to local needs
(provided by analog slide libraries) is critical to the current instructional
environment. We think that it is important that analog slide libraries
and digital image distribution consortia coexist for many years to come.
But we are very concerned that university administrators will be unwilling
or unable to support the financial burden of such hybrid systems.
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Andrew
W. Mellon Foundation, which funded this study.
Howard Besser and Robert Yamashita.
The Cost of Digital Image Distribution: The Social and Economic Implications
of the Production, Distribution and Usage of Image Data, a report to the
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 1999 (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Imaging/Databases/1998mellon/)
Howard Besser and Christie Stephenson.
The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project: Technical Issues in the
Distribution of Museum Images and Textual Data to Universities, James
Hemsley (ed.), E.V.A. í96 London (Electronic Imaging and the Visual Arts),
Thursday 25th July 1996 (vol 2), Hampshire UK: Vasari Ltd, 1996, pages
5-1 - 5-15
Howard Besser. Comparing Five Implementations
of the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project: "If the museum dataís
the same, whyís it look so different?", Proceedings of the Fourth International
Conference on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums, (Paris France, 3-5
September 1997), Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1997, pages
317-325 (republished in David Bearman and Jennifer Trant (eds.), Museum
Interactive Multimedia 1997: Cultural Heritage Systems Design and Interfaces
(Selected Papers from ICHIM 97), Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics,
1997, pages 50-58
Christie Stephenson and Patricia McClung
(eds.). Delivering Digital Images: Cultural Heritage Resources for Education,
volume 1, Los Angeles: Getty Information Institute, 1998
Lynch, Clifford A. 1997. The Uncertain
Future for Digital Visual Collections in the University. Archives and Museum
Informatics 11, no. 1: 5-13
Scholarly Publishing & Academic
Resources Coalition (SPARC). Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries,
Bates, A. W. 1997. Restructuring the
University for Technological Change, University of British Columbia, Vancouver,
Last modified: 10/2/1999