Monday, March 30, 2009

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 4 of 7

This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Challenges of Image Description Part 1

Like all other archival materials, images are organized and made accessible based on their original order and provenance, but because of their uniqueness, value, subject matter, and historical significance, they present challenges for description. Unlike archives and manuscripts, visual collections often do not have a clearly defined or pre-existing organizational structure, individual titles, or creator names by which they can be described (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006). Baxter (2003) notes that the use of visual collections shaped their description. For instance, early photography collections held at the New York Public Library were treated at bibliographic materials before their recognition as archival resources (Weinstein & Booth, 1977, and Ritzenthaler, Munhoff, & Long, 1984, as cited in Baxter, 2003).

Additionally, when images are indexed, they may not only be described in terms of being “about” a subject but also “of” a subject and, as a result, descriptive access points can be numerous. This knowledge hierarchy is similar to Panofsky’s (1939) preiconographic, iconographic, and iconology levels and traditional subject-headings like broad term, near term, and related term.

Finnegan (2006) argues that image description is inherently subjective, requiring complex conceptual and ideological processes to determine the subject. “Image archives … function as terministic screens, simultaneously revealing and concealing ‘facts,’ at once enabling and constraining interpretation” (p. 118). Interpretation is needed because, as Huyda (1977) writes, “existing captions are often incomplete, inaccurate, deliberately distorted or irrelevant” and that “the attribution of photographs to particular photographers or studios is a complicated process” (p. 10). Additionally, visual materials have lacked description and lagged behind their textual counterparts in automated access because they have held a lower priority in archives (Turner, 1993).

Description is subjective because information is assigned to images, as they are usually not accompanied by textual information. Image retrieval, therefore, translates the users’ cognitive visual needs to descriptive systems entries. Archivists must be able to assist users articulate their information needs, as well as be able to match that expression to an existing image. Image description surrogates, such as keywords, titles, captions, or cataloging records, act as attributes against which a query may be matched and provide support for browsing, navigation, relevance judgment, and query reformulation (Goodrum, 2005).

Friday, March 20, 2009

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 3 of 7

This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Current Practices of Image Description Part 2

Collection-level description can be useful for images of the same subject, but problematic for collections with a variety of subjects, as it neither improves retrieval nor limits handling of the originals. Ritzenthaler and Vogt-O’Connor (2006) agree that group arrangement and description are necessary and acceptable for large photograph collections or when resources are limited. Norris (1985), in his case study of two very large photograph processing projects, states that “something is better than nothing” for description at the group or collection level (p. 133).

However, item-level description is more common with visual materials than with textual materials. This is especially true for digital images, which by their nature, mandate it. Archivists must evaluate their visual collections to determine if item-level description is warranted. Critics like Dooley (1995) call item-level description of visual materials “insupportably expensive and unnecessary” and a “relic of a more leisurely past” (p. 88). Although it is time consuming, item-level description makes images searchable, and, with digital images, viewable without having to retrieve the originals. However, resources are seldom adequate to catalog all collections to the item level, and item-level handling should exist within a framework provided by group-level description. Repositories with limited budgets may digitize one or two representative images, while noting that there are additional unscanned images (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006).

Access to image collections is usually provided through finding aids, which only include subject indexing for large collections, if at all. Studies indicate that, among a variety of libraries and archives, the most frequent approach to image retrieval is by subject (Armitage & Enser, 1997). However, archival practices vary considerably, depending on the repository, the resources available, the size and requirements of the collection, and user needs.

With the advent of computers, some institutions used MARC records to provide subject indexing for large pictorial archives through individual collection-level records (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006). The MARC records point users to a finding aid for a particular collection for more detailed information. Since the finding aids were generally paper-based, and often only available locally at the institution, users would have to view them in person.

Item-level MARC cataloging of images, while in some cases desirable, was often neither warranted nor economically feasible (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006). The hierarchical format and electronic access capabilities of the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aid, however, offers the possibility of a more powerful, flexible alternative. EADs index image collections by providing access points at the collection or item level, depending on the needs of the institution, collection, and users. As the tools for accessing finding aids become more sophisticated, EADs’ content-specific indexing capabilities will make it a powerful resource for standardized, integrated access to primary source visual collections.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review of Encyclopedia of Gender and Society

Encyclopedia of Gender and Society

My review of Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. Edited by Jodi O’Brien. (Washington DC: Sage, 2009).
Published in ARBAonline, March 2009.

Alpha males, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Personal is Political,” quilting, and Sojourner Truth. These topics and more are covered in the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. This comprehensive two-volume encyclopedia covers the major theories, research, and issues in contemporary gender studies, providing comparative analysis of the experiences of men and women around the world. Editor Jodi O’Brien, Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Seattle University, assembled 300 international experts in the field to write more than 500 entries.

Offering current scholarship in contemporary gender studies ranging from individual to global issues, the encyclopedia demonstrates how gender shapes our lives, cultural beliefs, and social and economic organization. Rather than covering all gender topics, the encyclopedia provides a lens on recognized areas of social research. Well-trodden issues, like Barbie, body politics, and patriarchy, and relatively new aspects of globalization, like microlending and maquiladoras, receive cutting-edge theoretical treatment.

Topics include crime and criminal justice; economics, international development and human rights; religion; and science and technology. Entries range from about 600 to 2000 words, with related entries, further readings, and websites noted. Entries are listed alphabetically and by theme, and an index completes both volumes. Several longer framing essays provide an overview of contemporary research. Addressing complex gender topics, the Encyclopedia of Gender and Society is a cohesive, usable reference source for both public and academic libraries, well worth its high price.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 2 of 7

This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Current Practices of Image Description Part 1

Libraries organize published, non-unique items (such as books and serials) using standards such as MARC and AACR2 with LCSH descriptors. Archives, museums, and visual resource collections create lengthy, detailed descriptions of unique materials or their representations (such as slides and digital images), which can be expressed as both collection- and item-level records.

Description expands upon information gleamed during appraisal and arrangement, which produces preliminary descriptive forms, such as container lists; summarizes the context and content of archival materials at multiple levels; and adds usage restrictions and access points for creators and subjects (Zinkham, 2006).

Description often includes provenance, style or genre, history and use of the item, preservation details, various views of the item, and controlled vocabularies. Description presents information not otherwise provided on the images; often there are no identifying texts. Without description, archivists must rely on staff memory or browse through images, which is time consuming and weakens images from handling. Undescribed images are vulnerable to theft and misfiling (Zinkham, 2006).

Schellenberg (1965) devotes the final chapter of Management of Archives to the arrangement and description of visual materials. He notes, “The methods of arranging and describing pictorial records have not been fully defined, much less standardized” (p. 322). Since the publication of his seminal book, formal standards, such as Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), Graphic Materials, and Rules for Archival Description (RAD), have been developed for archival description of visual materials. For example, the ISAD (G): General International Standard of Archival Description defines multilevel principles, such as moving from the broad to specific, linking hierarchical levels, and basic descriptive elements. These elements include creator names, titles, dates, administrative history, scope and content, and locations of originals and copies (International Council on Archives, 2000). While descriptive standards offer consistency, repositories employ descriptive systems suited to their holdings, not universal access, and archival description continues to be idiosyncratic (Pugh, 2005).

In their literature review, Greene and Meissner (2005) found that “[f]rom the mid-1960s to the present, archival authors have dismissed arrangement at the item level as having little utility and being thoroughly impractical for modern collections” (p. 213). Despite the literature, their repository and grant proposal surveys found that a large proportion of archivists have adhered to item-level description, even though it is contrary to the traditional archival practice of collection-level description. The same discrepancy between literature and practice appears to be true for visual collections.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Review of American Women Leaders: 1,560 Current Biographies

American Women Leaders: 1,560 Current Biographies

My review of American Women Leaders: 1,560 Current Biographies by Carol Hooks Hawkins. (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2009).
Published in ARBAonline, March 2009.

In this volume, Hawkins compiles profiles of contemporary female leaders marked with career accomplishments, milestone achievements, or major honors to serve as role models for American girls. The 200-word entries, with portraits, contain biographical information on educational, career, and leadership success of women representing a variety of ethnic and regional backgrounds. Appendices of occupational and geographic listings are also included.

The profiles of the political, business, educational, and cultural leaders are for the most part objective and well researched, although there are coverage issues. Aerospace and medicine are well represented, but more emphasis is needed on female scientific and technological achievements. Additionally, profiles of religious leaders—all Christian—are abundant, at the expense of others. For example, Taffi L. Dollar, wife of televangelist Creflo Dollar currently under Senate investigation for financial malfeasances, is included, while Teach for American founder Wendy Kopp, one of 2008’s Time 100 World’s Most Influential People, is not.

Despite these issues, the volume may still useful for most libraries, especially considering the number of profiles of present-day leaders. Due to an editorial team and a rigorous select process, the 5-volume Notable American Women series (see ARBA 72, entry 221; ARBA 82, entry 771) may be a better choice, especially the recent volume on distinguished women who died in the twentieth century (see ARBA 2006).

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 1 of 7

This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Introduction

While libraries have developed structured rules for cataloging print materials, these rules have not fully addressed the needs of image collections. Museums, on the other hand, have acquired great expertise in describing their unique holdings, but these practices vary because of the diverse nature of individual museums and their collections. Even with the emergence of online catalogs, web accessible collections, and improved information searching and navigation, access to visual collections has remained limited due to a lack of standardized description and integrated modes of access.

Increases in visual literacy, the use of photographs as primary sources, and technology’s ability to provide access to images over the Internet have created an impetus for many archival institutions to provide deeper descriptive information for their visual holdings (Kaplan & Mifflin, 2000). The Society of American Archivists (SAA) defines description as:
the process of creating a finding aid or other access tools that allow individuals to browse a surrogate of the collection to facilitate access and that improve security by creating a record of the collection and by minimizing the amount of handling of the original materials (Pearce-Moses, 2005).
Archivists describe their collections based on the principles of provenance and original order. However, unlike textual records, visual materials are often removed from their original locations and filed in subject files without further description. The context and purpose of an image is often not conveyed to those who were not present at the time of the event being captured. Thus, without an accurate record of the names, dates, and events depicted, an image holds little historical value. Schmidle (1996) notes, “Stripped of its original context, an old photograph is reduced to mere curiosity” (p. 14).

These series of posts discusses archival description of visual materials. SAA defines “visual materials” as “a generic term used to collectively describe items of a pictorial nature, including prints, paintings, photographs, motion pictures, and video (Pearce-Moses, 2005). Visual materials are synonymous with “nontextual records,” which “include records formats that are not principally words on paper, such as maps, photographs, motion pictures and video, sound recordings, and the like” and “nonprint materials” which are “items that are not books, periodicals, or pamphlets; nonbook materials” (Pearce-Moses, 2005). The majority of archival literature on nontextual records discusses photographs, but my arguments can be extended to all visual materials as defined by SAA. Current practices, challenges, and examples of image description will be explored. The archival profession has described visual materials inconsistently, making access difficult and regulating visual collections to the “margins of archivy” (Schwartz, 2002, p. 142).