Background (Theory & Methods)
The Museum Educational Site
Licensing Project (MESL)1 provided
a unique opportunity to examine the social and economic issues surrounding
the digital distribution of cultural heritage images and their associated
data from museums to universities for use in the classroom. MESL's digital
storage and distribution offered an alternative to existing analog slide
image repositories in academic slide libraries. The vast majority of these
libraries have highly restrictive policies that hinder students' use of
course images and digital network technologies offered the opportunity
to broaden access to digitized repositories of cultural heritage images.
MESL was the first effort at providing such access to a large, multi-institutional
This evaluation of MESL's
social and economic aspects had to recognize the limits of the project.
First, MESL constituted an experiment in the production and distribution
of digital images and data. The MESL model needs to be understood as only
one of many possible models for this kind of project. More significantly,
because of its experimental character, this model would probably not be
replicated in production environments. In addition, MESL's design focused
on a variety of institutions because different institutions use images
in very different ways. MESL image providers included several major art
museums, a cultural anthropology museum, a photography museum, and a national
library, and image users included both public and private research institutions.
This made direct comparisons difficult at best. The analysis therefore
needed to move beyond the specific structure of MESL to an examination
of the general process of digital distribution. However, the variety of
different institutions enables us to outline the range of practices and
to identify the underlying rationales and mitigating circumstances that
lead to the systems that are developed.
This evaluation sought to
identify the different kinds of costs associated with the distribution
of managed digital and analog images. We were not interested in the general
kinds of images that might be found on consumer level CD-ROMs or in 35mm
slide sets. Rather we focused on the managed image, which is housed in
a collection designed to be accessed by multiple users. The ways in which
these images and their data are managed in a collection not only situates
the images in their proper contexts, but also allows users to search the
collection, and it allows access to many images by many different users
and types of audiences. We wanted to fully explore these issues.
1: Schematic of the Managed Image
The managed image consists
of both the image itself and a linked set of associated text. The text,
known as metadata, consists of information that can be descriptive,
contextual, or can provide control (illustrated in Figure 1). Descriptive
metadata provide basic identifying information (e.g. artist name, picture
title) about the original object that the surrogate image represents.
Control metadata are specific information about the
surrogate image that resides within the collection (e.g. call numbers,
file name, resolution, compression, etc.). Contextual metadata
are any additional information about the specific item (e.g. curatorial
notes). The combined set of data enables the image to be managed, and
permits shared access of the individual managed image as well as the entire
collection of managed images. 2
Managed images have traditionally
resided in physical collections like slide libraries. Digital technologies
have enabled the creation of a new kind of managed image that resides
in virtual repositories, accessible through digital networks. This new
modality promises to alter image access and usage in the classroom. In
order to understand and develop an analysis of these different forms of
distribution, we identify several layers of cost that are organized around
the structural relationships of image production and distribution.
- The practice environment
is the broadest and most general category we can use to examine any
image delivery model. Operations in this layer can be categorized into
physically distinct zones: (1) the production of images and associated
text, (2) the processing of image and text data and the creation of
managed image volumes, (3) the deployment of these managed images through
a distribution system, (4) the implementation of security measures to
control access, and (5) training for end users so they can use the managed
images. Our examination of the practice environments can similarly be
broken into a number of distinct areas that define the economics of
the digital distribution of images: structural elements, cost centers,
infrastructure, and institutional organization.
- Structural elements
define the various steps that go into creating a managed digital image.
For example, the production of an image requires accomplishing at least
three distinct tasks: selecting an image, digitizing it, and creating
the associated text. Procedurally, the tasks are independent; however,
the creation of a managed digital image requires all three components.
- A cost center
constitutes a collection of linked activities that are required to accomplish
a particular task. For any specific structural element, there are a
number of discrete cost centers. For example, the process of securing
the legal rights to digitize an object would be a necessary cost center
for an image producer. This cost center would be different from the
center relating to the process of identifying images that consumers
might want to use, or the center that involves the actual digitization
of the object. There are different kinds of relationships between the
cost centers within the structural elements of each practice environment.
Some are procedural with linear dependencies (e.g. one step requires
another), others operate as parallel processes (e.g. they happen simultaneously),
and some are discrete either/or operations.
- The technological
infrastructure refers to the connections between practice environments
or between clusters of specific activity. For example, the delivery
system between the production environment and processing environment
could be the Internet or a mail delivery system like the postal service.
In defining the social and economic costs of the infrastructure, it
is necessary to identify the embedded layers of different kinds of shared
and assumed costs. For example, all usable classrooms presumably have
power and lights. All high-technology classrooms would have network
connections. The kinds of costs associated with these features are generally
distributed across a campus, and not limited to a specific department
- The institutional
organization is the defining social structure that shapes practice.
This can include participating operational units as well as sponsoring
agencies. In both museums and universities, the department that assumed
primary responsibility shaped how the MESL Project operated. The functional
relationship can be top-down or bottom-up. Slide libraries are similarly
influenced by their surroundings. Where they are organizationally located
(as part of a department, college, library, or university) clearly impacts
their responsibilities and budgets.
In order to understand
the differences between digital and analog image distribution systems,
it is important to analyze the structural design and framework of both
the MESL and analog delivery systems. This effort helps to define assumptions,
decisions, and their implications. This paper outlines the structure of
the MESL digital distribution model and follows with a comparative analysis
of our analog sample. We conclude with a functional comparison of digital
and analog modalities.
the MESL Case Study
While the penultimate goal
of the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) experiment was
to establish the site-licensing model of digital image distribution, the
immediate goals, as expressed in the public documentation of the project,
appeared to be more modest. MESL wanted to "define the terms and conditions
under which museum images and information can be distributed over campus
networks for educational use" (MESL: Goals and Objectives, 2/22/95:1).
It therefore was designed as a prototype demonstration of how to use "digital
imaging and network technologies."
MESL was designed as a
prototype demonstration of using "digital imaging and network technologies"
to "make cultural heritage information more broadly available." It consisted
of three objectives:
- To develop, test and
evaluate procedures and mechanisms for the collection and dissemination
of museum images and information.
- Propose a framework
for a broadly-based system for the distribution of museum images and
information on an on-going basis to the academic community.
- Document and communicate
experience and discoveries of the project.
(MESL: Goals and
These objectives addressed
the fundamental questions about the feasibility of designing a digital
image delivery system, and of providing long-term access to the system.
MESL provides us with a unique opportunity to examine costs and uses of
digital images delivered over campus networks. The goal of the economic
evaluation is to identify and evaluate the technical infrastructure requirements
and the social and economic resource needed to accomplish the MESL project.
Understanding the costs associated with various steps in the MESL distribution
process is critical, not only for understanding the relative success of
MESL, but also for framing the future direction of digital image distribution.
The primary MESL objective
was a feasibility study to examine the question of whether the networked
distribution of a large number of images from museums to universities
However, MESL was not simply
about the distribution of digital images of museum objects. The goal was
to provide a large number of managed images from a variety of different
institutions to a number of different universities for use in different
classroom situations. The task was to include other kinds of associated
information that enhanced the understanding of the image (e.g. contextual
metadata such as curatorial descriptions and notes). The technical hurdle
in MESL was combining two sets of digital information: the relatively
new digital images, and the legacy text data stored in local information
systems. Extracting legacy data from systems designed around a local culture
and putting it into a shared database requires a degree of standardization
that needed to be negotiated between the participating MESL institutions.
As an exercise in feasibility,
MESL appears to offer a publisher-buyer model where digital images and
accompanying text documentation were created by museums and distributed
to universities. (Robert Ubell Associates, 1996). This formulation suggested
a procedural flow from publisher-to-university-to-end user. Figure 2 illustrates
the relationships in the basic MESL Distribution Pathway.
2: MESL Distribution Pathway
However, this model has
natural limitations. While universities were the buyers of published data,
they were not the users. The universities need be understood as redistributors
of these data to their respective user communities for classroom and research
purposes. As such, the universities are a kind of "intermediary" in the
exchange between publishers and buyers.
The second objective sought
to explore these concerns by defining the character of this museum-university
relationship. The digital distribution model in MESL made assumptions
about users' interest level in accessing and using these materials. As
with many digitization projects, it was assumed that MESL's methodology
had enough inherent advantages that end users would use these systems
provided there was sufficient, and appropriate, content. However, acquiring
content required permissions to use the material from copyright holders.
This issue focused attention on the legal and technical concerns of site
licensing and the management of terms and conditions. These concerns frame
the conditions for use of reproduced images-they give museums permission
to reproduce digital images of objects and provide access to these reproductions
to end users. This imposes an institutional arrangement on top of the
distribution chain, where the terms and conditions of use direct the practice
in the distribution pathway (illustrated by Figure 3).
3: MESL Terms & Conditions Delivery Model
This model also makes a
number of assumptions about the interest level in accessing and using
these materials. MESL, like many digitization projects, assumed that its
methodology had enough inherent advantages so end users would use these
systems provided there was sufficient, and appropriate, content. 3
The digital distribution model asserted that if publishers could gain
permission to release enough of the appropriate content, users would be
motivated to acquire their images digitally. Appropriate licensing frames
would permit the buyers to deploy these images in ways that would grant
permissions to its users to retrieve these images (see Figure 4).
4: MESL Theoretical Delivery Model
This framework operates
as a push model, in which information suppliers (publishers) provide access
to their repository data in a specified manner. It also constitutes a
top-down framework where the supply of information determines possible
choices, and where the supplier frames the uses of its information.
As an exercise in feasibility,
MESL appears as a publisher-buyer model (Robert Ubell Associates, 1996).
This formulation suggested a procedural flow from publisher to university
to end user akin to the commercial publisher-buyer model with a one-to-one
relationship between the terms and conditions, usage preferences, and
delivery system. However, the commercial model has natural limitations.
The museums were not traditional
publishers. They were providers of representations of the objects held
in their collections. Traditionally, third parties (e.g. book publishers,
image distributors) were the publishers of museum images. Other than basic
fees for using the reproduction of their representations, museums did
not receive any benefit from the commercial dissemination of these images.
The third parties were always the primary beneficiaries. Under the MESL
model, museums became the official publishers of their images.
- Although the universities
were the technical buyers of record for published data, they were not
its users. Universities redistribute their acquired data to their respective
user communities. As such, the universities collectively behave as a
kind of "intermediary" in the exchange between publishers and buyers
that simply deploys what it has acquired.
- Unlike commercial buyers,
universities are not interested in exerting direct control over the
usage of the supplied information. This presents a challenge for the
simple publisher-buyer model and the commercial exchange of information.
Rather than controlling each instance of use, universities try to exert
control over who is eligible to access their resources, and will take
advantage of the underlying control technology in the digital distribution
where limits on access can be defined. This kind of control creates
a mismatch between the formal terms of usage and actual practice.
- Finally, because financial
gain from each transaction is not their primary motive, universities
do not directly benefit from increased usage of their deployed resources.
Importantly, universities are in a situation where they want individual
end users to benefit from the use of their resources. As such, universities
invest in infrastructure development and support efforts that are designed
to expedite access of their resources.
These structural limitations
suggest a four-part distribution pathway of (1) image producer or MESL
museum, (2) image deployment by the MESL universities, (3) security or
access control system, and (4) the end users' environment.
5: MESL Practical Delivery Model
Another feature of the
MESL experiment was the participants' willingness to create a situation
where standards for the digital distribution of images could emerge, rather
than be imposed. However, this willingness to explore the possibility
of emerging standards was immediately impacted by the many-to-many relationship.
The high number of digital images, combined with the number of sender
and receiver institutions, each with different digital imaging skill levels,
increased the possibility for file errors in basic file structure. While
each recipient could theoretically manage these differences (and errors),
there was an early recognition that the attempt to create a minimally
usable data set would result in duplicate efforts. While several solutions
were proposed, the MESL project opted to have a single center conduct
basic file maintenance. The center's responsibilities were concentrated
on basic quality assurance: file checking of digital images and associated
text data sets for visible errors (i.e. delimiters), standardization of
the data sets, and packaging and delivery of these data to the universities.
This model recognized that the integration of data elements into managed
digital complexes and the aggregation of the multiple data sets required
each MESL university to perform additional processing in order to develop
its local database. Each university then used the corrected data to implement
their own database and delivery systems. MESL's original objectives, together
with these modifications, established MESL's actual distribution system
(illustrated in Figure 6).
6: MESL Actual Distribution Model
From the standpoint of
social and economic costs, the MESL distribution pathway can be further
defined by identifying some of the structural elements and their accompanying
cost centers. 4
- Providers create
digital images and their associated text. This involves the organizational
and technical processes needed to produce digital images and deliver
them to a third party. In MESL, the providers were museums. In order
to produce digital versions of images, the providers had to give permission
to digitize the object. While meeting user needs is one of the main
criteria when prioritizing what gets digitized and distributed, other
issues, such as what materials are permissible or have already been
digitized for other projects, can intrude on the decision-making process.
This was especially visible during the first MESL distribution where
several museums committed a significant amount of staff time to soliciting
universities for requests. During the second distribution, these institutions
tended to be more autocratic and selected images for the university
(Notman, 1998). Provider cost centers include selection, rights clearance,
object capture and digitization, image data conversion, object data
selection, text data conversion, and some form of aggregation and shipping.
- The processing
task is to create a database container that houses the range of data
elements in a specified order. This intermediate task includes taking
delivery of the images from the museum and conducting file-checking
procedures. If there are problems with any specific image, this needs
to be corrected by working with the individual museum. The final task
is to deliver the processed images to the universities. Cost centers
include quality control, aggregation, and integration. The relationship
between these cost centers tends to be procedural.
- The distributors
constitute a specific kind of intermediary. In MESL, their responsibility
was to implement a functional database for local delivery systems. The
individual delivery system includes the technological infrastructure
required to use digital networks as well as the "back-room" production
environment, including the storage space and database tools that make
access to the images possible. Additional tasks include providing the
basic public interface to the database. The environment is also dependent
on getting licensing permission 5
to mount and distribute these images, as well as faculty interest in
developing courses using digital images. Cost centers include image
and data (both structured, e.g. descriptive and control metadata, and
unstructured, e.g. contextual metadata) preparation, database creation,
and the implementation of interface functionality (e.g. web interface,
search engine, search interfaces, etc.).
- Security (access
control) restricts access to the database and sits between the university
delivery system and the end user. The primary purpose is to limit access
to a specific target community. Importantly, the security system also
needs to be transparent enough to the end user so that it does not become
an obstacle to access. Although security can take many different forms,
we can loosely group it into three distinct categories: proprietary
systems, general access controls, and enhanced authentication. Unlike
other practice environments, the security environment tends to be discrete,
and follows a standard set of procedures.
- Usage is determined
primarily by individual preferences and priorities. Although the university
delivery systems can enable general, all-purpose access to the digital
image datasets, the major impetus for general use is from the courses
that use these images. Course development requires an available university
delivery system, and is limited to the range of images selected for
digitization. It consists of four basic elements: outreach to inform
end users of the availability of the images, training in how to use
the database, support for ongoing use, and actual use of the images.
Analog slide libraries
provide useful points of comparison to the digital distribution model,
since these collections have been the primary method for the distribution
of visual cultural heritage information to the educational community.
These resources are generally not available as campus-wide facilities;
rather, they serve a specific discipline or more commonly, a sub-specialty
area. Most collections are thus closely linked to the peculiarities of
a local department and faculty. This gets reflected in the specific content,
cataloging, and organization of individual collections. Slide libraries
image distribution systems need to be understood within this context.
Slide libraries began after
image projection technology was developed in the late-nineteenth century.
The invention of the standardized 35mm slide accelerated the development
of image repositories (Irvine, 1979). For the most part, the development
of these repositories was aimed at capturing visual information about
cultural heritage that would be difficult to understand (or even imagine)
through textual description alone. Therefore, many collections were started
by art and art history faculties so students could see the cultural heritage
objects without having to visit the museum where they were displayed.
Similar collections were started in architectural programs so their students
could see examples of building design. These programs tend to be highly
specialized and relatively small, with severely constrained departmental
budgets. To economize, the departments needed to share their visual resources
across their faculty. Visual resource libraries were designed to facilitate
this type of image sharing. Their funding was usually derived from departmental
or college resources; their development was driven by the particular interests
of resident faculty. The result was that many collections were highly
idiosyncratic, with collections being organized, cataloged, and stored
according to local interests. Over time, these repositories acquired a
large number of images (the average library in our sample has existed
for some 50 years and houses over 280,000 images).
Significantly, the physical
acquisition rate in any given year at any facility is a relatively low
percentage of the entire collection (approximately 2.5%, or about 7,000
images from a variety of sources). Collection development efforts do not
target an infinite universe of images; rather they respond to the needs
of the user base. Collection development plans not only respond to individual
requests but are also designed to anticipate trends in faculty areas of
study. Copyright issues are of critical concern for slide librarians.
Collection developers give priority to acquiring the highest-quality images,
which usually means commercially available slides. However, when there
is an urgent need for a particular image, slide libraries will often make
a copy of the slide rather than initiate a new purchase. It is important
to note that buried within the acquisition process there is the reality
of the burden of paperwork (e.g. purchasing approvals, facilities receiving
and processing, etc.) that encourages the use of copy photography for
small numbers of acquisitions.
All slide collections have
a physical security system that limits access to the collection. These
access restrictions are generally framed by different classes of users
(e.g. resident faculty, visitors, graduate students, undergraduates, etc.).
Because most of the slide libraries are departmental rather than university-wide
facilities, most primary faculty members have keys to the facility. Many
sites restrict general undergraduate student access to the collection.
In these cases, undergraduate students will have to resort to finding
books in the library that contain the image, or, library policy permitting,
view a limited subset of images that are posted as prints or in 35mm slide
holders taped behind a window. These inconveniences have historically
been framed by concerns over fair use, and the general fragility of the
A final area is the usage
environment. In order to facilitate the use of slides within the facility,
most slide libraries provide a basic system where end users can select,
sort, and project their images (slide tables, projectors, carousels, etc.).
Library staff members typically handle slide re-filing, and every library
has slide check-out and check-in policies and procedures.
The structural organization
of slide libraries makes it easy to compare the analog and digital distribution
systems. Structurally, individual slide libraries act both as image publishers
(museums) and image providers (universities). Every slide library has
some type of acquisition procedure where analog images are either produced
or purchased. There is also a processing phase where the finished images
and their data are checked and entered into a physical record and digital
database. The slides are then loaded into a storage space with other analog
images. The deployment stage requires a number of additional resources
including check-in, check-out, and re-filing systems and procedures. There
is usually a security environment that restricts access by end users,
usually according to user status (e.g. faculty, graduate student, undergraduate).
There is also a user training environment where individuals can access
the images. This can mean physically removing the images from the site,
looking at individual images on a light table, or simply holding up slides
to a light or window. Figure 7 outlines the analog distribution model.
7: Analog Distribution Model
While the analog distribution
pathway operates in the same direction as the digital distribution model,
there are critical differences. In the analog world, user preferences
determine what is in the collection. In turn, these interests frame the
terms and conditions of use where classroom needs underlie and presume
a claim of fair use. Formal access policies further restrict physical
access to a well-defined user pool.
Like its digital counterpart,
the analog distribution pathway can be further broken into a number of
This environment centers around the tasks required to acquire images.
The first task is to select the images. Many libraries have specific
collections development efforts for defined faculty areas of research.
The second task is to physically acquire the image. This is done through
purchasing, copy photography, or gifts. Each method has a specific and
distinct set of procedural steps. A third task is to acquire the associated
text data-the descriptive metadata, control metadata, and, if needed,
contextual metadata (although most slide libraries do not have provisions
for contextual data). Depending on the source, additional research may
be needed to complete all the appropriate data fields.
- Processing: In
this environment, the images and their data are compiled into usable
managed objects. The initial tasks are error checking and quality control
(this can include putting the slides into heavy-duty mounts). Associated
metadata are created and placed in the appropriate cataloging system
(this includes attaching data to the slide itself).
- Deployment: This
environment involves the physical deployment of the images into the
shared storage system. Additional tasks include providing access to
the image (e.g. circulation, slide tables, staff assistants, etc.) and
implementing a system to check out individual slides. A final task is
the physical return of slides (including check-in, re-filing, and maintenance).
- Security: This
environment establishes procedures for accessing the collection. Most
slide libraries have distinct rules and access procedures for different
classes of users (faculty, students, etc.). They also have specific
regulations about room access and use (which are different for each
class of user). For the most part, the specific check-in and check-out
procedures are self-regulated by individual users.
- User training:
This environment includes the basic efforts to support end users. On
the library side there is outreach and education (usually formal programs)
as well as standard development and immediate user support (usually
Within our framework, the
digital MESL and analog distribution modalities appear to be structurally
similar. The basic physical delivery path includes the fundamental elements
of image and associated text creation, image and associated text processing,
managed image distribution, access control, and user training. Under MESL,
the distribution elements were located in separate institutions: museums
published images and text, the University of Michigan operated the central
processing facility, and universities delivered the images and text which
end users accessed for particular purposes. Within each university, different
units and departments provided different services; for example, computer
centers or special library departments mounted and deployed the images,
and courses in specific departments used these images. In contrast, the
slide libraries housed most of these operations in a single unit. This
basic schema allows for a comparative examination of the practice environments
along the two image delivery pathways.
8: Comparative Distribution Environments
The schema outlined in
Figure 8 highlights some critical points.
First, there is a procedural
distinction between image production and image acquisition. Image production
focuses on a one-time construction of a master image. Copies of the master
image are then redistributed. Acquisition is purchasing or making a copy
of the master image. Museums in MESL and in future digital distribution
modalities would be producers of master images. Image consortia and universities
would acquire copies of these images. Analog slide libraries often do
both: they acquire copies of slides from third party vendors and they
produce specific images for their users.
Second, the end products
of both production and acquisition are only the basic data elements-not
the managed image. The creation of a functional managed image occurs towards
the end of the physical delivery process, at the point of database creation.
In the case of digital technologies, managed images are created at the
time of delivery. Importantly, many MESL sites produced static web pages
using managed images-the digital equivalents of analog managed slides.
Database creation is a
new practice environment. Building a databasewhether in the form
of a catalog or as an image databaseclearly should be a distinct
practice environment from actual deployment. This activity was masked
in MESL reporting where the production of university deployment systems
focused on interface development rather than the accompanying database
In slide libraries, general
cataloging was clearly distinguished from actual physical deployment While
all slide libraries reported that part of their database cataloging process
involved putting the slide in a circulation drawer, it was usually not
clear what kinds of other access pathways were provided. For example,
some sites had a comprehensive local, online database of their entire
collection; others provided a local online database to only part of their
collection but had a comprehensive card catalog. Some sites implied that
the user needed to go to the shelf to find out what was really housed
in the collection. Regardless of how the slide libraries chose to provide
access to their collections, all of them were functional, operational
entities. The variety of different access pathways is instructive for
future distribution models. Interface is a matter of local culture. What
is required is a standard distribution database for image collections,
where the images and data are stored in standard and interchangeable formats,
but can be accessed through different interfaces depending on the needs
of the institutions and the users.
Another issue in illustrating
these practice environments is their different cost matrices. One-time
expenditures and ongoing costs can frame the economics of the two distribution
systems. One-time costs essentially cover the cost of developing the core
database. These one-time expenses need to include the costs of acquiring
images (such as production, acquisition, and processing). However, acquisition
costs tend to be dynamic. For example, in a site-licensing model, acquisition
spending remains more or less constant over time. In contrast, direct
purchasing means that the collection of images is paid for once. Each
has different attenuate costs and benefits. The actual database is the
critical "back end" to a functional managed image repository. The point
at which one-time costs end depends on the circumstances under which the
images were created. Analog distribution costs stop at the point where
the managed image is loaded into the physical deployment environment.6
In the digital world, because managed images can be assembled on demand,
one-time costs end after the deployment interface is built. Ongoing costs
include security implementation, user training, and support. For the most
part, basic security is relatively inexpensive. Providing a more sophisticated
system for user authentication naturally requires greater expense.
A further significant difference
between the analog and digital worlds is the character of the one-time
costs. In the analog world, where the file format is standard, moving
to an updated physical environment (e.g. a new room) does not add any
cost (apart from the cost of remodeling the room!). In the digital world,
moving to an updated environment often results in significant expense,
because the data must be recompiled to meet the new digital standards.
In the real, empirical world, the physical life of computer systems means
that there will be routine, almost annual, changes, whereas some slide
libraries have been in the same space for decades. In both environments
there are periodic costs to enhance the deployment system. This can include
adding more storage or modifying the interface (e.g. adding functionality
to the interface or a new light table). Both environments would also have
routine maintenance costs associated with them. 7
A final issue is the problem
of image selection, a process occurring in both digital and analog systems.
However, in digital collections, the costs are potentially enormous because
they involve acquiring rights for both reproduction and distribution.
In the analog world, selection costs appear to be minimal. But selection
criteria will direct the amount of time and energy spent identifying the
images to be acquired. For those images that are not commonly available,
there will also be an anticipated periodic charge for producing local
A critical assessment
of costs associated within this path needs to take into account the formal
terms and conditions of use. Formal terms and conditions involve publisher
(museum) permissions to digitize images and to allow access to these images
at universities. Sometimes, these elements include direct costs for buying
digital images, at other times, they are simply factors in the technical
implementation process. For example, a library may not have to spend money
to acquire the digital images themselves, but will have to spend more
on security in order to limit access and protect copyright. As noted previously,
this framing is most significant for publishers (museums) or their consortia
that offer a large number of images for an undefined user base-a situation
commonly found in digital distribution models.
A final frame is user
preference and perceived relevance. Related to this frame is the issue
of what constitutes a comprehensive collection. Third-party distributors
and consortia emphasize the fact that they give (or will give) access
to comprehensive collections" of images. However, what constitutes "comprehensive"
is ultimately defined by what the user sees as being relevant. For example,
a comprehensive collection for a single user could consists of the 500
images they use in the classroom-not the millions of images that are universally
available. If one image is not part of the millions, then that body is,
by definition, not comprehensive. The task of image providers is to meet
the needs of the actual users, and to not simply acquire everything they
can get their hands on.
This discussion outlines
the required practice environments for an effective, functional image
distribution model. This frame is illustrated in Figure 9.
9: Functional Distribution Environment
- First there is an acquisition
environment where raw images and their associated text are acquired.
This can come through direct purchase (or site licensing) of images
or through some other kinds of process where the relevant image and
image formats are created. The production of digital images for distribution
and the acquisition of images by libraries are not direct equivalents.
Digital production involves the creation of a master image (even if
that master is derived from an existing analog image). The creation
of master representations requires using something that is close to
the original, and it presumes that the rights to offer such a reproduction
have already been granted. On the other hand, the acquisition process
involves the work required to get a copy of the master. This environment
involves the organizational and technical processes needed to produce
images and deliver them to a processing facility.
- The processing
environment essentially constitutes error checking. Both analog and
digital distribution requires this step. Error checking corrects problems
with any specific image and its data before any further work is done.
Although the details are task-specific, this is a basic and fundamental
environment in any model.
- The database
environment is the development of the structure for accessing the images.
This is the most critical task for the sharing of the managed images.
It requires the appropriate mapping of the different kinds of data so
they can be found. In the analog world, this means attaching metadata
to the slide and creating appropriate records (either electronic or
card). In the virtual world, this means creating an electronic database.
In slide libraries, the images and text data are compiled manually.
In principle, the digital world allows for the managed image to be assembled
virtually, at the point of access. 8
- The deployment
environment involves the mechanisms through which the images are delivered
to end users. It includes the necessary infrastructure required to use
digital networks or to provide access to analog collections, as well
as the "backroom" production environment such as storage space and database
tools that makes access to the images possible. Additional features
include the basic public interface to the database. The environment
is also dependent on having permission to mount and distribute these
images as well as faculty or research interest for developing courses
and using digital images.
- Security (access
control) sits between the image database and the end user. The primary
purpose is to limit access to the collection to a specific community
of users. As is the case elsewhere, the security system needs to be
transparent enough to the end user so it does not become a barrier to
- The usage environment
is determined primarily by individual preferences and priorities. Within
the university this environment includes user training and support.
For the most part, use of 35mm slides requires very little training.
However, under MESL, the digital interfaces required significant training;
most lacked the features to make them useful for classroom use; and
network connections and classroom displays became critical obstacles
to the adoption of digital databases. More significant than any difficulties
with the underlying technology were problems the lack of a comprehensive
collection and guaranteed future access. The lack of a comprehensive
collection could be managed through local digital production. However
the concern over long-term access to the digital collection cannot be
so easily resolved, because many parties are involved. In physical collections,
while new acquisitions can always be curtailed, all instructors can
rely on the fact that the images they already use will always be available.
In digital collections, however, the images are made available by outside
parties which could opt to cut off access at any time. The rapidly changing
nature of the technologies involved also raises concerns that, even
if the images are still available, they might not be readable. Future
distributors of digital images need to address the continuity of access
to digital collections, especially given the realities of fluctuating
budgets. In physical collections, all instructors can rely on the fact
that the images they already use can be reused in future courses. Course
development requires an available and stable delivery system. It is
contingent on the range of image selection but also the knowledge that
these images will be available whenever the course is taught.
These models permit a pragmatic
specification of the cost parameters-one that begins to address costs
associated with the digital and analog distribution modalities. The most
basic and fundamental distinction is the driving organizational force.
The top-down distribution model of digital image consortia emphasizes
the need for comprehensive image database collections. Because these consortia
target a general and unspecified population of users, what constitutes
"comprehensive" is abstractly defined to include all available images
from their accessible repositories. This mass collection dissemination
primarily requires addressing the critical concerns of copyright and the
terms and conditions of use. The bottom-up distribution modality of analog
images focuses on user needs. A comprehensive collection is defined by
what is needed at the local level. It therefore does not have to have
images of everything in the world, simply the ones required by local users.
Copyright and terms and conditions are acknowledged, but they are secondary
to local needs and uses.
The realities of analog
image collections directly challenge the "comprehensive" ideals of the
consortia model. In our study, the evidence suggests that image collections
consist of both purchased acquisitions and locally produced images. These
locally produced images are not all copies of famous master images; many
are of local interest-either specific to the region or area or relevant
to the instructional interests of individual faculty. These collections
of locally produced images offer a natural supplement to any single collection
of acquired images (regardless of source). Any future design of a digital
image deployment interface needs to be able to take these local interests
An issue unique to MESL
was that its database included the addition of supplemental text data
(contextual metadata). Although only a few MESL university sites provided
access to these data, there was at least one instance where individual
faculty research provided invaluable additions to the existing metadata.
In a wider digital distribution environment, there needs to be a way that
end users can supplement existing metadata.
A final point is the changing
character of ongoing costs. Managing images requires constant updating
of the deployment environment. For example, re-filing costs will be eliminated,
but they will be replaced by the costs of maintaining equipment and networks.
Furthermore, despite the automation of many tasks, personnel costs will
not disappear. In fact, the evidence suggests that relatively low-paid,
unskilled work-study students will be replaced by fairly expensive professional
staff. Nor does going electronic mean that there is no need for real-world
space. The need for rooms to house collections will be replaced by the
need for digital closets with lots of specialized, expensive equipment.
This cost-shifting matrix needs to be explored.
This study had little on
which to base its substantive data collection and evaluation (MESL was
an experimental project and a study of the economics of slide libraries
had never been formally conducted). Given the uniqueness of the investigation,
we chose to collect data from multiple sources, gathering quantitative
economic data and qualitative evaluations. For both MESL and slide library
investigations, we used technical evaluations that collected quantitative
data on estimates to complete certain tasks, qualitative site-visits,
and in-depth interviews. Where possible, we also examined additional reports
such as user/re-filing logs. Additional data for MESL were collected as
part of MESL's internal evaluation (e.g. user surveys).
The technical challenge
of the economic evaluation is to reconstruct the full range of activity-both
formal and informal-needed to accomplish MESL and to distribute analog
images. However, from the beginning, this economic evaluation was confronted
by practical problems in data collection. First, although the managed
images were similar, their production and distribution environments at
each institution were different. This meant that specific commonalties
and cost centers along the production and distribution chain (e.g. from
the museums' creation of the images and accompanying text, to their distribution
to the universities, to their use by individuals) needed to be derived
from diverse project implementations. This heterogeneity made standardized
data-gathering problematic. Second, MESL was understood to be an experiment
in the electronic distribution of digital images and data. MESL participants
were on a steep learning curve, caught in a web of solving specific technical
issues in order to accomplish the overall goals of the distribution. Thus,
although individual sites were asked to keep accurate logs of what was
happening during the course of MESL implementation, most did not. Much
of the MESL experience therefore has to be recreated from memory after
the fact. A parallel situation exists for analog slide libraries. Many
of their routine practices are not regularly documented; in some instances
they provided estimates or best guesses. This project's technical data
was gathered in collaboration with MESL's evaluation team, which designed
the data collection instruments. The reports reflected the institutional
heterogeneity and experimental mindset of the MESL participants (and thus
reflected different units of measurement and inconsistency of operations
from one site to another). Despite these limitations, the MESL-Mellon
team identified data collection points where experiences could be compared
Figure 10 outlines the data collection relationship between the economic
evaluation, MESL, and primary data sources.
10: Data Sources
For the economic evaluation,
the primary data collection device was the technical report. It was jointly
developed by MESL management and the Mellon Project and requested from
each participating institution as part of their project reporting. Supporting
data came from the MESL project archives, site visits, focus group interviews,
surveys of MESL participants and end users, and web server log files.
- Technical reports.
The reports review the implementation requirements of MESL and include
documentation of the associated economic costs. Parallel reports were
developed for museums and universities. Each has three sections: an
institutional profile, technical implementation, and reflections on
experience. The profile documents the resources of the institution,
general procedures, and staffing dedicated to MESL. The final section
asks open-ended questions that allowed project team members to expand
on their experience.
The heart of the report
is the technical section that documents procedural steps. For museums,
this includes information about collection management systems, content
selection, and image and text processing. For universities, this includes
system architecture, data preparation, functionality and support.
Each question in the MESL
technical report can be linked to specific production environment and
mapped to a logical procedural moment in the digital imaging distribution
path. For example, sections 2.1.4 in the Museums report asks about the
digital imaging process. This section includes questions about past
experience and prior resources, as well as MESL experiences and resource
commitment. On the other end of the distribution chain, Section 2.1.3
asks the universities about the data preparation and loading requirements
to load MESL data onto their systems. Questions under this section cover
resource needs and expenditures for different kinds of data preparation
(e.g. images and both structured and unstructured text). The cost reports
include both exact figures and anecdotal assessments. The individual
steps in the production and distribution processes can be collected
into functional "cost centers" in the workflow.
- Cost report from
the central processing facility. The University of Michigan's central
processing facility submitted their own cost report on their activities
in text and image aggregation and correction. It evaluated the types
of problems they encountered, and included costs estimates. This report
provides insight into the technical hurdles confronted by the museum
image production environment. It also provides the core data for understanding
the processing environment.
- MESL archival material.
This section includes project announcements, a request for applications,
project proposals, MESL electronic list messages, and published reports.
- Focus group interviews.
Group interviews are useful for eliciting information on individual
experiences that otherwise might go unreported The focus groups were
held during the final MESL project meeting.
- End user surveys.
Objective measures for the end-user environment come from a cooperative
effort of several teams working with different instruments that target
distinct features of MESL. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
was responsible for evaluating the classroom experience at the MESL
academic sites. Cornell University is currently conducting an evaluation
of end-user response at the MESL web sites and a survey of MESL participants'
- Site visits.
The Mellon team members have conducted six formal and informal site
visits to MESL institutions to evaluate the impact of the project. These
visits were informative because they allowed participants to discuss
and demonstrate their own MESL experiences. Specific meetings with faculty
during these visits to universities have provided important clues about
the creation of courses and impediments to use of digital images.
- Server logs.
A few of the MESL university sites that use Internet web servers have
made their log files for a single academic semester (Spring 1997) available
for further investigation. Log files provide useful information, such
as when the site was visited, where users came from, where they entered,
and where they left. Data mining of these files may provide some insight
into patterns of use of different functions.
The evaluation recognizes
the variety of data type and quality. Interpretation requires linking
"hard" or "objective" data to softer, experiential, or qualitative information.
The sections in the technical report can thus be mapped to supporting
documentation. Site visits and focus-group interviews help to interpret
the technical reports. Data in the background sections of technical reports
are derived from the applications and proposals submitted by each applicant.
Supporting material for the technical implementation comes from meeting
notes and electronic mailing lists, as well as data from the central processing
report. The reflection section of the technical reports receives support
from the various participant surveys. These relationships are illustrated
by Figure 11.
11: Data Sources and Object Relationships
The formal design of MESL
deliberately brought together different institutions with distinct strengths
and interests. Although general cost center analyses and cost trajectories
are instructive, the disparities between institutions are as important
as their similarities. The heterogeneity of institution means that any
individual site can be viewed as an archetypal example of a specific type
rather than a member of a collective. The analysis thus has to be both
an intra- and an inter-institutional exercise situated within context
and examined in terms of local social organization and local culture.
This requires a two-step examination of costs that not only compares the
data quality across institutions (correspondence) but also its link to
accounts in individual experience (coherence).
In order to gather comparative
data on the analog side, we used questionnaires that were structured similarly
to the MESL reports. The questionnaires requested data on the known practice
environments and cost centers in slide libraries. To a large extent, the
kinds of questions asked paralleled the MESL-Mellon evaluation. We also
included site visits to each institution, detailed discussions with individual
slide librarians, and additional reports (e.g. re-filing logs, annual
Both the MESL's technical
reports and the Slide Library evaluations requested information on procedural
steps and personnel requirements. These reports form the key data for
determining hard economic costs. They were developed on the basis of what
was known to be occurring in each institution. A review of the data in
these reports demonstrates a number of problems commonly associated with
any first-time analysis. The most significant problem was the presumed
level of specificity. There were wide discrepancies in the number of personnel
(or person hours) required for accomplishing a given task. It could be
that the specific differences are an artifact of institutional culture
(it has always been done that way), data quality, or projection of the
number of bodies in a given unit. Assessment of the numbers therefore
needs to begin with an internal examination of the institution, before
making comparisons across sites.
Finally, the researchers
did not ask specific questions about infrastructure requirements. In many
instances it can be assumed that there is some minimal set of technical
elements that needs to be in place before a given task can occur. The
different levels of existing capabilities can lead to results of varying
quality. Nonetheless, their physical impact on the overall cost picture
needs to be documented. Despite these limitations, the kinds of data collected
by the project provide significant help in understanding the socioeconomic
parameters of digital and analog image distribution.
There have been a number of articles about MESL published by the project
team (see Albrecht, 1995; Besser and Stephenson 1996; Giral and Dixon,
1996; Lebowitz 1996; Trant, 1994-1995; Trant 1996a; Trant 1996b; Trant
1997) Back to text
The basic concept of the managed image can be ported to a discussion of
other kinds of collections (e.g. books, journals, articles, multimedia,
etc.). These "managed volumes" are what distinguishes a library that is
designed to share its volumes among a variety of unrelated users (e.g.
the university library) from a collection of texts shelved in a faculty
member's office. Back to text
This appears to clearly be the view of some of MESL planners (see Bearman,
1997). In contrast MESL participants knew they had a hard sell, before
they could get faculty to use MESL images. During the first years, University
participants committed significant resources in the effort to attract
faculty to MESL images. Back to text
An economic evaluation requires identifying and measuring the resource
commitment to accomplish a given task-calculating the costs of machines,
mechanical processes, skilled personnel, and the necessary associated
infrastructure, and identifying the accompanying form of social organization.
The UCB Mellon Study-as the first effort to identify the cost centers
for image distribution-only collected and analyzed data on the centers
that were clearly visible at the beginning of the study. As the team analyzed
these data, it became clear that were other cost centers that needed to
be identified and examined in future investigations. Back
It is critical to distinguish between rights clearance and licensing permission.
Rights are determined between the museum and the owner or donor of the
particular museum object. Licensing is the agreement between the museum
and the university (or end user) that dictates how the reproductions can
be used (see Levering and Levine, 1998; Levine, 1998). Back
In principle, the implementation of pre-computed managed digital images
would also end at their insertion into the delivery system. The technical
problem involves not the managed images themselves so much as how to accessing.
In the physical world, one just needs to "go there" and look. In the virtual
world, browsing is possible, but cumbersome. In both instances, you will
need to "learn" the filing system and naming conventions. Back
While it might appear that moving to a new room (or redecorating/moving
items) and improving the functionality of a computer system is significantly
different, the realities of the change can be mapped onto each other.
In the analog world, the move-any move-is usually accompanied by the claim
of improving the access and usability-even if the changes are only cosmetic.
A similar claim is made in the upgrading of a digital delivery system.
The empirical reality is in improving access and functional use (a subjective
assessment, at best). Back to text
Interestingly, the majority of MESL implementations used formatted, static
query result pages (which essentially are manually compiled sets of digital
information) rather than dynamically generating the pages. These manually
compiled pages are the digital equivalents of analog slides. Back
Cost of Digital Image Distribution:
The Social and Economic Implications of
the Production, Distribution, and Usage of Image Data
Howard Besser & Robert Yamashita