A survey in 1979 of retrieval methods used by thirty-two photolibrarians and archivists in government and nongovernment agencies focused on the usefulness to researchers of image-bearing card catalog records. While only the largest agencies or those with smaller collections could afford to produce cards with surrogate images attached, the method "satisfied the researcher's ultimate dream of quick, certain access to the principle item of interest: the image itself" (Evans & Stein, p. 402).

The authors also noted the rising tide of requests for visual material and the wide variety of finding aids in various repositories. A text published in 1991, directed mainly to professional picture researchers in the publishing trades, includes extensive guidance for working with organizations that hold photographs -- libraries, archives, historical centers, museums, and stock agencies (historical, advertising and journalism). Enough differences exist that two chapters are devoted to "exemplifying categories" --public sources such as The Library of Congress, The National Archives, The Minnesota Historical Society, and the Slovak Museum; and commercial picture agencies (stock agencies) such as The Bettman Archive, Inc. (recently purchased by Bill Gates' Corbis Media), Comstock, Inc., and Magnum Photos.

Commercial agencies are businesses that market and sell the rights to reproduction of photographs and other visual material, often soliciting work from photographers and artists. Museums, libraries and archives maintain visual collections of artifacts, prints, photographs, and film footage for public use. Self-evident in a commercial sense, boundaries blur when agencies such as Corbis (and others) acquire rights to collections in archives, libraries, museums, and science institutions, as they have been doing for many years -- anticipating the "pressing need for content" from evolving multimedia technologies (Besser).

Distinctions are also complicated when genre is considered. Images considered important for their historical value once carried the label documentary as opposed to photographs that were created in the same time period and considered art or advertising. These terms have changed in meaning in an interdisciplinary, postmodern age. Art museums have long collected images created by acknowledged masters such as Timothy O'Sullivan, Muybridge, Alexander Gardner, Charles Darwin, Lewis Hine -- work created in the documentary tradition, redefined ...and art (Crimp, p. 7). Libraries, archives, museums and stock agencies all have holdings from significant newspaper collections -- rich with images that are valuable to a wide range of researchers for a wide range of purposes. This is the case for many collections. The Bettman Archive, for example, provides exclusive access to the Frank Driggs collection of entertainment photography, valued as an important visual history of jazz in the United States.

Differences exist more vividly in the ways photographs are arranged, described, accessed, and made available to researchers. Access, and the degree and depth of information provided ,varies widely -- from basic numbering or subject filing schemes to complex associations with a broad range of other materials. As these sources become part of a shared networked electronic environment, providing images remotely in order to meet increased demand for "quick the image itself," which traditions will be maintained and which will change?

Photographs in Context

Interest in digitizing images emerged partly out of the inherent difficulty associated with describing visual materials. Despite apparent simplicity, photography is like other languages - - capable of "subtlety, ambiguity, revelation, and distortion...its relationship with reality as tenuous as that of any other medium" (Ritchin, p.1). Text based systems for description and access have been inadequate for describing the host of access points from which a user might try to recall an image. Multi-disciplinary from the start, photographs often contain information useful to researchers coming from a variety of disciplines. An image of a nineteenth century family in front of their home might be of interest to historians looking for one kind of evidence and architects for another. Other researchers might be interested in the same image because of the process used or to study the technique of a particular photographer. Further, finding a desired print can be a labor-intensive, time consuming task. In many repositories, physically juxtaposing images to compare historical movements or relationships is difficult, particularly when material is held in different locations or in different boxes.

An early attempt to resolve some of these problems is the UC Berkeley prototype, which utilizes visual browing tools on a computer workstation. Users conduct online queries using descriptive text and then visually browse through surrogate imates of the results. Ties to the bibliographic record are maintained (Besser).

Visual access to images mounted by a variety of institutions are becoming familiar to world wide web visitors -- the numbers grow steadily. It is interesting to consider in this environment the degree (or lack of) text describing a photograph or a collection. and / or the extent to which links are used to relate a photograph or collection of photographs to relevant contextual material.

It has been frequently pointed out that photographs are not self-describing. Increasingly, historians and other scholars consider visual material from a social, economic and cultural perspective, while postmodern consumers view all images with a wary eye. There are, however, a number of elements that can be incorporated into a bibliographic record, finding aid, or text accompanying a photograph (or collection) to enhance meaning. Primary is the necessity to know as much as possible about the creator and the purpose of creation. This is often much more difficult than identifying subjects, people, or places and provides far different, equally relevant, information. As much as is known should be mentioned in the record -- including corporate creators (such as work produced for an annual report or recruitment brochure),

Captions and text that accompany a print often hold crucial intellectual information for understanding content. Captions, such as the lengthy ones Lewis Hine wrote as he documented child labor conditions in the nineteenth century, rarely appear when his work is reproduced or as it hangs on a museum wall, yet provide researchers with a rich textual adjunct to an image. It is important for the catalog record to record the existence and extent of captions and other accompanying textual material, such as journals and field notes. Collections organized by provenance and described at the collection or folder level may also include letters, diaries, printed material, marked up contact sheets, etc.

The serial and sequential quality of photographs has also often been overlooked. Ulrich Keller traces this problem to the Art Photography movement at the turn of the century with its interest in "masterworks." Photography has changed, however, and more attention is being "devoted to photography in its principal historic manifestations." Yet, he says, "it may be forever too late to determine the working methodology and the archival structure in the historically so very significant oeuvres of Walker Evans and Albert Renger-Patzsch. At the crucial moment, no informed curator was at hand to prevent the fragmentation, not just of a mass of pictures but of systematically related ones, and therefore of primary structures of meaning" (Keller, 3). Documentation records can reflect original order, collective description, and note where related collections are held.

Often difficult, but becoming more and more critical, is the need to determine the process used in the production of the image. The nature of reality and meaning can be explored through process -- whether contemplating a nineteenth century solemn portrait or a computer altered image. Further documentation must include tracking on the evolution of a digitized image, raising larger issues related to authenticity.

Some of these elements are common in typical documentation connected to an image (depending on the repository) and some are foreign (depending on the repository). The level of detail is another significant variation.


To a certain extent, efforts to determine levels of information to include with a photograph, particularly when digitized, are hampered by a lack of studies defining how users work with images. The degree of contextual information desired by users no doubt varies depending upon purposes and needs (although questions arise as to what should, perhaps, be imposed). This issue is likely to broaden further as more and more people access images on the Internet. The nature of use cannot be easily predicted and will likely evolve as researchers discover new ways to use photographs. Thus, current digital projects ought not to be seen as a one-time "publishing" function, but a venture in "adding value to a body of knowledge over time" (Besser and Kenney in Archives & Museum Informatics, p. 204).

The bibliographic record, finding aid, and other tools may one day be replaced (or redesigned) with links connecting original material, surrogates, and related material. As new possiblilities evolve, researchers will still look for the elements of information provided in a traditional finding aid and / or catalog record, as well as information on the digitized data itself -- Where are the originals? In what format? What is the original size? Who is the owner? What is the copyright status? Who was the donor? How should the image be cited? Management data will also be collected and queried. When was the image digitized? What scanner was used ? When was it loaded? When was it last modified? How was it modified? Beginning with questions such as these will lead to others equally worthy of consideration.

Because of the very ubiquitousness of photographs, their abundance, and the extensive ways they are predicted to be used, providing contextual information may seem a tedious, unnecessary task. Perhaps, however, it is technology that will provide the means to enhance context even further than has been possible to date. James Enyeart, former director of the George Eastman House, suggests that technology for digital imagery systems, able to manage large numbers of photographs, arrived in tandem with a cultural need (Enyeart, 3). He notes that in 1990 Americans made seventeen billion photographs -- which should be saved and how should they be saved? History provides few models. For example: "Much of what used to fall in the generic or indifferent category of "illustration" has now assumed the distinct quality of an historical document or artifact "(Keller, 11). What to save in the age of photographic abundance is, however, a separate , although closely related, issue.

Archivist David Bearman, in a keynote address at a Library of Congress digital cataloging symposium, urged some rethinking -- from cataloging to organization of knowledge. Archivists have long dealt with collections of hundreds of millions of unique items too voluminous to be individually identified. They deal with materials that do not reveal the elements by which they might be described (individually or collectively) nor do they have "subjects" whereby they might be indexed. They also work with researchers who have widely divergent interests in the same archival materials (Bearman, 3). In preserving cultural heritage, archivists have developoed an array of "paradigms, practices, skills, and experience that address the needto manage, distill, document, authenticate, preserve, and inter-relate" all types of media (Gilliland-Swetland, 8).

Collaborations among archivists, librarians, curators, and system developers interested in visual imaging are flourishing, and there is, indeed, much rethinking going on. In symposiums, working groups, meetings and consortiums, questions related to the significance of contextual material associated with photographs are being considered side by side with higher profile technological and copyright issues:


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Kathy Steiner / ILS 603 / Besser / October 15, 1995