“Ce projet un peu fou”: Web Archiving Art Resources with NYARC

  • Posted on Oct 02, 2014 by

For the 2013-2014 academic year, I worked as an intern under a grant-funded partnership between the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) and Pratt Institute called M-LEAD TWO.  For my internship, I worked at the Frick Art Reference Library on NYARC’s burgeoning web archiving project. This August I had the fortune of presenting my work at the IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) pre-conference for the Art Libraries section in Paris.  The title of the conference was: "Art Libraries meet the Challenges of E-publishing: new players, new formats, new solutions,”  and each panel tackled these issues from different angles.  I found it valuable to see what solutions and methods other librarians were using to approach the evolving digital landscape.  

There were many impressive presentations on new digital publishing platforms such as Art-dok, the University of Heidelberg’s platform for both digitized print journals and open access journals, Artifex Press a publisher of digital catalogue raisonné, and Art Book Magazine, a digital art bookstore available as an iPad app.  One entire session was devoted to born-digital museum catalogs, which have recently made impressive technological strides.  Librarians also discussed ways in which they engaged visitors using their new digital collections, whether inviting artists to “remix” their collections (as in the case of Musée Quai Branly) or inviting the public themselves to create content by expanding art-related Wikipedia pages (Centre Pompidou).  It was heartening to see that around the world, libraries have only become more relevant in the digital landscape, not less.

I presented with Stephen Bury, the Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian at Frick Art Reference Library, at the last session devoted to digital preservation.  After listening to all the exciting projects of other institutions, we may have seemed like spoilsports.  Sure you can create and collect all of this impressive digital content, but how are you going to preserve it?  The ease with which users can navigate digital auction catalogs, catalogues raisonnés and other art resources has also made them in danger of very suddenly and irrevocably disappearing. As software changes, certain information on websites can become unreadable, and as institutions evolve, digital-born publications may be removed from the web without a second  thought.  Websites that use dynamic and interactive software like flash provide are remarkably difficult features to save in a stable archival format.  Web archiving software has difficulty capturing videos and audio.  Don’t even try to preserve mobile websites: we aren’t there yet. More and more people and institutions are publishing art resources online; very few of them save these materials in an archival format made accessible to the general public.  

Walter Schlect, far right presenting on Digital Preservation panel.

Walter Schlect, far right presenting on Digital Preservation panel.  Photo credit: Lindsay King

The onslaught of ephemeral digital material has lead librarians and others to worry about the impending “digital black hole.” Rapidly disappearing born-digital documents will negatively affect future scholarship.  National and Academic libraries around the world have responded to this crisis in part with web archives, which my fellow panelist, Clément Oury, head of legal digital deposit at the Bibliothèque Nationale called, “ce projet un peu fou” (this kind of crazy project).  The work of web archivists is indebted to the pioneering efforts of the Internet Archive, founded in 1996 by Brewster Kahle.  The Internet Archive boasts an enormous collection of web sites “captured” by a “web crawler” they developed.  Their commercially available software, Archive-It, is what NYARC uses to capture websites. Unfortunately the Internet Archive only allows access by URL.  NYARC aims to collect deeper collections of art resources than the Internet Archive as well as provide more access points.

Bury and I talked about the specifics of NYARC’s pioneering approach to webarchiving in our presentation “Making the Black Hole Gray: Web Archiving at the New York Art Resources Consortium.“ I call it pioneering because many national libraries engaged in similar projects, as Bury stressed in his portion of the speech, are restricting their web archives to on-site use only.  By contrast NYARC is allowing for the widest possible access of its collection by allowing remote access and multiple discovery points.  Yet web archiving is still no easy business.  My talk discussed a study of websites I performed with my fellow intern Janet Burka to investigate the “archivability” of websites of interest to the NYARC collection.  We did this by looking at previous captures of websites in the Internet Archive and looking at the source code of websites to gauge how difficult they would be to capture.  The results were often disheartening.  Many of the most interesting websites to the NYARC collection were also the most difficult to capture, containing flash, video, and other elements that confound web crawlers. Often there are workarounds, whether through creative web crawling or capturing content in different formats.  Françoise Jacquet, a panelist from the Literature and Art department of the Bibliothèque Nationale, discussed how her department often had to save French digital-born auction catalogs in a flattened PDF format rather than the original interactive menu of lots.  Such workarounds are often inevitable if not completely desirable. The sheer magnitude of online resources also makes the work of web archivists very difficult.  Bury stressed that more institutions need to think about ways of preserving their own digital content, because libraries will never be able to save everything.

Yet our current investment in web archives is an investment in the future. One librarian in the audience asked about how web archives are currently being used by scholars.  Oury memorably answered that a web archive is like a fine wine: it takes time to develop and achieve greatness.

Image of a Restaurant Boat from the Maciet collection. One the first night of the conference all participants ate dinner on a similar boat.  

I thought about this while taking one of the many tours of local art libraries provided at the conference. At the library of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts) I learned about the work of Jules Maciet, one of the most inspiring library initiatives I encountered during the conference, though it began well before the digital age.  Maciet (1846-1911) spent years a collection of images of everything from vases to weather phenomena to torture instruments, as a source of artistic inspiration.  These images came from prints, lithography and magazine clippings. Maciet organized them by his own classification system and bound them into 5000 volumes that line the entire library.  This plethora of images has now been digitized and the library has developed software (now in beta) to allow users to add descriptive metadata, so that these unique images can continue to be discovered and to inspire on a greater scale than ever before.  In this way, the digital world is not an obstacle to overcome but a tool to continue and expand unfettered access to art resources in the collections of art libraries around the world well into the future. Digital preservation plays an essential part in achieving this goal.

I am particularly grateful to ARLIS/NA and the Kress Foundation for awarding me a travel grant to present at this conference.

Walter Schlect, 2013-2014 M-LEAD TWO Intern, Frick Art Reference Library and MS/MSLIS Candidate at Pratt Institute for the History of Art and Design and Library and Information Science. Contact info: wschlect[at]gmail.com

Banner image: Paris Plages, a summer beach installed along the Seine

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