Digital Image Distribution: A Study of Costs and Uses

Howard Besser
Associate Professor
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. #f1 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 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 in teaching.

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.
  1. 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 groups.
  2. 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.
  3. 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." #f5  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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 research.


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:
  1. 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 services.
  2. 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, or theme.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


Findings: Costs

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 to security).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


  1. 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 (
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. Christie Stephenson and Patricia McClung (eds.). Delivering Digital Images: Cultural Heritage Resources for Education, volume 1, Los Angeles: Getty Information Institute, 1998
  5. Lynch, Clifford A. 1997. The Uncertain Future for Digital Visual Collections in the University. Archives and Museum Informatics 11, no. 1: 5-13
  6. Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, 1998.
  7. Bates, A. W. 1997. Restructuring the University for Technological Change, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada: