VRC Paper

The Evolving Role of Image Collections and the Academic Librarian

Today’s librarians stand on the precipice of a brave new world. Informational technologies are evolving, so too are traditional models of information organization and delivery. This is changing the modes of access utilized by the modern patron. “The effect of technologies on people can be profound, and because the new technologies are introduced regularly, it is important to understand the many potential reactions to their presence” (Rubin, 114). The librarian maintains a unique place where they can understand the needs of their patrons and stay abreast of evolving resources and how best to deliver them.

One field within librarianship where this is true is visual resources management. The transition from analog photographic slide collections to digital image collections is a prime example. The first sign of this change is purely semantic, as university slide libraries transform into visual resources centers.

Technological savvy becomes a crucial profession preserving skill set as these changes take place. “With computers and digital projectors replacing slide projectors in almost every classroom, troubleshooting problems with electronic equipment has become the service requested most often from the image library staff” (Ching-Jung, 2009). It is important that the librarian take the initiative when new technologies arise. Faculty in academic settings relies on the librarian’s expertise when new technologies are implemented. “It is often the case that the teaching faculty are either nervous about unfamiliar and intimidating technology or simply unwilling to devote time to learning new tools when the old ones are working well” (Ching-Jung, 2009). Though the old tools may be working well for now, it is often the case that the manufacturers discontinue these analog technologies that age and breakdown. So the faculty member ultimately has no choice but to consult the librarian if they are to effectively deliver visual content in the classroom.

Another area where the discernment of the librarian is crucial is image acquisitions. The evolution of digital collections is not a simple scanning of analog slide collections into digital formats. That does take place; however, it only represents a fraction of how digital collections are grown. Often it is the case where an image is recreated digitally from source materials or is purchased from a vender. The decision to rescan from source materials what already existed as an analog slide has to do with quality. With today’s digital cameras, scanners and image editing applications it is often more efficient to simply recreate images from the source materials. The art librarian who is familiar with their analog collections can make the crucial decisions about which slides will be of value as digital images and which can be recreated or purchased elsewhere.

When the librarian is considering purchasing digital image collections for a library they are “…in a desirable position to foster expertise with licensable digital image collections and to negotiate the ways in which the technology appropriately reshapes image research, acquisitions, and the research environment” (Boudewyns, 2007). By adding a licensed digital image collection (LDIC) to a library’s electronic resources they “are challenging acquisition practices, collection policies and standards, staffing, budgets, and the roles and responsibilities of the art librarian” (Boudewyns, 2007). These collections often have their own interfaces and modes of access that the librarian is the first to master and disseminate to teaching faculty who need to know how to utilize these collections in the classroom. With purchasable image collections such as ARTstor, many visual resources centers are working collaboratively with the vendor to grow the collections they subscribe to. They may allow their own institutional digital image collections to be hosted by ARTstor. This affects how the metadata associated with these images is to be organized at the local level if ARTstor is to efficiently harvest these collections for the larger database. Accordingly, professional library associations such as the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) and the Visual Resources Association (VRA) have established data standards so that these collections are readable across varied technologies.     With the use of such LDICs it is up to the librarian to provide workshops and classes that demonstrate how to utilize these resources for faculty and students.

As these collections continue to evolve the means by which patrons will access them are keeping pace with the changing resources. Duke University has recently embraced the iPhone as a mode of access for their digital collections.

Making these collections available for the iPhone and similar devices is important not only to extend access to Duke’s collections, but also as a milestone in the evolution of academic libraries from traditional print repositories to institutions that embrace new technology for sharing their rich resources with broader audiences. Duke believes in putting its knowledge in service to society, and we are making a major commitment to reach well beyond our campus by placing our collections literally into people’s hands (Jacobs, 2009).

Another event that is beginning to manifest is the growing impact that social networking sites have on visual resources centers. More libraries are utilizing sites such as Facebook and Flickr as a means to reach their patrons and showcase their acquisitions. The Alcuin Society’s library, a non-profit organization dedicated to the book arts, has begun to utilize Flickr Pro as an image repository. Their stated reasons for this are “unlimited storage, unlimited uploading, unlimited bandwidth, unlimited sets, and archiving high-resolution original photos” (Saunders, 2008).             So beyond the individual user’s need to share their own images via this social networking utility, institutions are seeing value in hosting formal image collections on these sites.

Visual resources centers are utilizing Facebook fan pages as a means of community outreach. This has had marginal success as most libraries are not yet utilizing these sites to great effect. Given that this is a relatively new phenomenon, good practices have yet to be established for these resources. Success seems to be contingent upon consistently providing useful content to patrons (Reber, 2010). Researchers “have concluded that a library’s presence on Facebook as a group (distinct from an application) seemed to be valuable more as a public relations device than as a practical means of service delivery” (Laskaris, 2008). However, a library can keep the academic community abreast on new image digitization projects and new resources as they become available. It takes effort and commitment to make these pages successful tools. By providing visual samples of new digitization projects and instructions on how to access the larger collection, their pages become an engaging and useful resource for the patron. This also engenders information literacy among the participants.

In conclusion, we are seeing a sea change for how digital image collections will be acquired, archived, and delivered to patrons. The librarian is the best equipped authority to deliver these resources to the faculty and students of their institutions as they maintain a working knowledge of the needs of their communities and their collections. The modern academic librarian will keep their patrons informed on how to access ever growing and evolving resources. As stewards, they understand the evolution of these resources and how they are to be managed, no matter how they may be stored or packaged.


Rubin, R. (2004). Foundations of Library and Information Science (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.

Ching-Jung, C. (2009). Analog to Digital: Conversion of the Image Libraries at the City College of New York. Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 28(1), 36-39. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Boudewyns, D. (2007). Licensable Digital Image Collections: The Impact on Art Library Collections, Acquisition Practices, and the Research Environment. Art Documentation: Bulletin of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 26(1), 37-39. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Jacobs, D. (2009). iPhone and iTouch For Duke’s Digital Collections. Multimedia Information & Technology, 35(3), 12. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Saunders, J. (2008). Flickr as a Digital Image Collection Host: A Case Study of the Alcuin Society. Collection Management, 33(4), 303-309. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Laskaris, R. (2008). “I Don’t Even Know This Person!”: Academic Libraries on Facebook. Access (1204-0472), 14(2), 21-23. Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Reber, E. (2010).  A Quantitative Exploration of the Effectiveness of Online Social Networking as Marketing Practice among Academic Libraries. Capstone Paper, Master of Library and Information Science, Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA.

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