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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Access to Visual Data
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: Access to Visual Data
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 5, no. 3, September 2002
Article Type: Benchmark

Access to Visual Data

Deborah Lines Andersen

November 2002

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged. [1]

.01 Visual History

In the last issue of the Journal of the Association for History and Computing, David Staley introduced a new form of article... a "graphic essay" or "visual article" that used pictures rather than words to create historical narrative. [2] From the point of view of an information scientist, this article surfaced important questions about visual data. In particular,

  • From where did these pictures come?
  • Are they copies of the original or of a previous copy?
  • When were they taken?
  • Where were they taken?
  • Who took them?
  • Where are they now located?
  • How did David Staley find them?
  • Could I also have access to them?

These questions speak to how researchers in any field would find and identify visual images for use in writing and teaching.

For individuals who work in information science, these questions address "bibliographic control," the classifying of materials in order to increase access and decrease search time. Professionals are trained in how to access print information, and in how to make it accessible. There are courses in cataloging and information organization that teach students to categorize and locate print information with sets of very specific rules and procedures. Today information professionals must also learn about digital information, about the vagaries of the World Wide Web and online databases, so that none of this information will be lost to researchers and students.

Visual information is particularly problematic for the information specialist. Because it does not rely on words to convey an image, each viewer has the potential to assign subject terms or identifiers to an image. [3] Each cataloger has the same ability. The result is that a picture, while it is better than a thousand words, might need a thousand words to describe it adequately. [4]

.02 Image Description

Corinne L. Jörgensen discussed the image problem of "developing a succinct and usable surrogate for the image... that can represent both the image content and its potential usefulness." [5] This is a hard task indeed. Any picture that one looks at has not only the actual images presented... a flower, a baby, a building, but also the potential for conveying a story, a point of view, or an emotion about life. This potential necessarily means that not all individuals will respond to a visual image in the same way. It is not surprising then that researchers have spent a lot of time thinking about how to categorize, classify, index, catalog, and create metadata for the visual.

James M. Turner, for one, has created four major categories to describe the visual:

  • Types of institutions that house collections
  • Types of users and uses
  • Activities associated with creating and organizing collections, and
  • Types of images, including types of picture-making techniques. [6]

These categories present a variety of ways in which one might index a collection of visual images. Types of institutions include, says Turner, local, national or international organizations, types of sponsors (such as artists, libraries, or newspapers), physical organizations (such as art libraries or film archives), or collectors (such as the Library of Congress, historical associations, or museums). Users range from individuals who consult visual images (such as historians), to those who reproduce either the actual picture or items within the picture (think of the costumes and properties in film and theatre). Activities of collection vary from acquisition to preservation and restoration.

For the historian the types of images perhaps have the greatest import. Here is where one might find an historian attempting to locate particular images for use in an essay or a monograph in order to make an historical argument come to life. Images also have a critical role to play in bringing history alive for students of any age. The interesting issue is that one must use words to find a particular image or set of images to advance an historical point of view.

.03 Classifying Images

Using words, there is a series of classification schemes that can be used to codify the visual. In particular, technique and medium, place of storage, provenance, physical description, and narrative or emotive descriptors all have their parts in making image collections accessible to potential viewers. [7]

Technique and Medium

Technique or medium for the visual can range from oil paint to pastels, from lithographs to photographs, and from color to black and white. These aspects of the physical image can be used to describe an image in a database, and accessed by users who are interested in particular media and techniques for their research. The researcher benefits from a thesaurus that specifies what terms were used to describe items in a collection... fixed vocabulary. It is much harder to find an image, even the medium of an image, if the indexer was free to use a variety of synonyms in that description.

Place of Storage

For the researcher who finds images on the World Wide Web, or in other digital sources, the place of storage can be a critical factor. A digital image is at best a surrogate for the original. A thumbnail sketch can provide information about the subject matter of an image, but, as has always been the case, historians prefer to see the original when doing their research.

Provenance, Place of Creation, and Creator

In the world of art, "provenance" refers to a life history of any particular object, where is has resided since creation. The provenance includes the creator, the place of creation, and a list of owners and places of storage over time. [8] This list provides a lineage for important works of art, but it is also justified for more commonplace visual images. With this list a researcher is able to trace an image back through time, verifying its creation and historic significance.

Physical Description

As the world moves more and more toward the digital, physical descriptors will become critically important. A thumbnail of a picture can give its essence, but unless there is also information about the actual size of the image, the type of paper or backing, the medium, when and if it was last restored, and its age, it is hard to get a full understanding of the real work from the digital proxy. Additionally, it is very helpful, if not critical for the historian that she knows the identity of the subjects in a picture, the conditions under which the visual image was created, and any cultural or historical background that might aid in understanding the image.

Narrative or Emotive Descriptors

The most difficult categories of visual description are those that do not deal with subject matter, or time, or place, but with the human components of emotion and story. Collections that attempt to categorize by these methods need to have very carefully controlled vocabularies with specific users in mind. In an auditory analogy, one might expect that motion picture studios pay extreme attention to the emotive aspects of the music they use in their movies. Television advertisement creators do the same thing with their visuals. David Staley's images of Nazi Germany can hardly be viewed without at least some nod to their emotive as well as historic content.

.04 A Thousand Words

In discussing the visual in historical research and in presenting historical arguments, it is impossible not to speak also about challenges created by non-print media. Today there are machines that will read text to the blind and visually handicapped. [9] Unfortunately, we do not have computers that will describe visuals for this same population. Equitable access therefore becomes a problem for anyone who wishes to present materials that are visual.

In 2001, Steve Towns wrote:

For millions of citizens with vision, hearing, dexterity, and short-term memory challenges, the ability to use emerging electronic government applications hinges upon careful attention to accessible design. The American Association of People with Disabilities estimates that one in five Americans has some type of impairment, making accessible technology vital to widespread use of e-government. [10]

Since the focus of this writing is on the visual, Town's words are particularly important in cases not only for e-government but also where historical arguments are presented to readers in pictorial formats. There is an access issue. When Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was amended in 1998, the federal government required that access to electronic information provided by the Federal government or by agencies funded by the Federal government be accessible to everyone, including those individuals with handicapping conditions. [11] This legislation required that images presented on the World Wide Web by federally funded agencies have descriptive text boxes associated with each visual image... text boxes that could be read by assistive software devices.

The title of this Benchmarks - Access to the Visual, really has two meanings. In one sense, there is a crying need for better indexing of the visual in a world where proxy images are quickly becoming digital and separate from their original sources. This is a call for researchers to work on the creation of better indexing schemas for the visual, both for historians and for others who make use of non-print documents in their research.

The second meaning is pertinent, today, for the Journal of the Association for History and Computing. If the journal publishes graphic essays, does it have an obligation to create text that describes each of the images? Although the point of David Staley's article is that historical arguments can be made without words, can they always be accessed without words? [12] Although the Journal of the Association for History and Computing is not funded by Federal dollars, it nonetheless has a role to play in making information accessible to as wide a range of individuals as possible. This is one vote for thinking about broad information access, and the role a journal of computing and history might play in that arena.

.05 Works Cited

1. "Benchmark," American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. David J. Staley. "Sequential Art and Historical Narrative: A Visual History of Germany." Journal of the Association for History and Computing 5 (2), September 2002.

3. See Edward R. Tufte's ground-breaking books that deal with information presentation and design in visual media. Envisioning Information. 1990. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press; and The Visual Display of Information. 1983. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

4. See Robert Jacobson. 1999. Information Design. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press for a thorough look at the various aspects of creating accessible, non-print information.

5. Corinne L. Jörgensen. 1999. "Theory and Practice in the Organizatin of Images and Other Visual-Spatial Data for Retrieval." Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science (August/September): 13.

6. James M. Turner. 1999. "A Typology for Visual Collections." Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science (August/September): 14-16.

7. See Paul F. Marty. 2000. "On-line Exhibit Design." Journal of the American Society for Information Science (February/March): 22-24.

8. For a fine example of provenance one can turn to the movie, The Red Violin, (1999, Francois Giraud) a fictional account of the 17th century making and subsequent owners of a priceless Italian instrument.

9. See for the commercial site of one type of assistive software.

10. Steve Towns. 2001. "Breaking the Access Barriers." Government Technology (February):18-24.

11. 29 U.S.C. 794 (d).

12. David Staley does an excellent job of identifying the visuals and their sources in the endnotes of his paper. I would nonetheless argue that the journal should also ask authors to give a verbal description of the visuals so that individuals who cannot see them could still get a sense of the message in each. These descriptions should be hyperlinked to each picture. I expect that the description of the visual would turn out to be a terribly difficult task.