Emory Report
November 1, 2004
Volume 57, Number 10


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November 1, 2004
Art history goes digital: Bringing slide collections online

Alan Cattier is co-director of academic technologies for the information technology division

Information technology usually announces itself as change, and a new software tool at Emory is changing the way art history faculty members teach their courses. “Insight” is an image database for searching, retrieving and presenting digital images over a network.

Anyone who has taken art history knows its course lectures often feature projected 35mm slide images. But with the advent of higher quality digital images and software like Insight, the once exclusive dependence on slide transparencies for teaching art history is now under review.

“I’m a total convert,” said Dorothy Fletcher, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in art history. “I’ve just been using it this semester, [and] already have clear ideas of how it works—what its advantages and disadvantages are—but I love it. I can never go back to slides.”

Emory’s Visual Resources Library has more than 170,000 slides filed in drawers on a wall, and in the past preparing slides for a lecture was a laborious task anchored to the location of the slide drawers. With Insight, the art history physical collection is housed in one location accessible to the entire community over the campus network and, where appropriate, over the Internet.

“Insight is a revolutionary tool,” said David Lower, educational analyst for the Information Technology Division (ITD). “Imagine what it has been like for art historians to search for 20 specific images while standing in front of a wall of slide drawers with 170,000 slides, holding each one up to the light to see it. Insight allows faculty and students to tap an online database to search for just the right images quickly.”

About 32,000 images from the Visual Resources Library, complete with data records, are currently available in Insight.

Lower added, “Insight isn’t only about retrieving images; it’s also about presenting them.” The product features the ability to design presentations using multiple images side-by-side, to zoom in on image details and to make on-site, immediate changes to presentations—all impossible with slides.

“[Insight] is a new way of constructing the lecture,” said Rebecca Stone-Miller, associate professor of art history and faculty curator of the Carlos Museum’s Art of the Ancient Americas exhibit. “It gives you more ways to compare images on the screen. Didactically, it makes a lot of sense; [students] can see both time and space.”

“The whole department is learning it this year, because we all participate in the introductory undergraduate survey course, and that has gone digital,” Stone-Miller continued. “When I was teaching [the course], the first lecture went very smoothly and was fine. The second lecture, I had actually forgotten one important image, and my graduate student was able to find the image and load it in live. That was wonderful—a really biselling point for me.”

Perhaps the happiest Insight user is Frank Jackson, visual resources librarian for art history, who has been integral to the project from its outset. “I’m just now realizing how much better I’ll be able to manage the collection,” Jackson said. “Insight can negotiate thousands of images and associated text, interoperate with library cataloging systems, and can be augmented with worldwide image resources as well as shared subscription collections, such as the Mellon Foundation’s ArtSTOR.”

Insight is part of ITD’s and the General Libraries’ long-term strategy to provide comprehensive, network-shared access to image collections for the humanities and sciences. This prototype effort offers both divisions a window into issues involved in making these collections available to the broader community.

“It’s fantastic to have this collection online,” said Don Harris, CIO and vice provost for information technology. “But what’s really exciting is the thought of different disciplines using each other’s collections, no longer required to travel to a physical space to get access. For instance, imagine a neuroscientist in his lab researching human creativity by exploring the images of Van Gogh. Insight makes that type of discovery possible.”

For more information on Insight, contact Lower at dlower@emory.edu.