Reframing Collections for a Digital Age

  • Posted on Jun 18, 2012 by

The New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) directors are planning for the future. Recently, we secured an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to explore collecting born-digital (i.e., originating in a digital format) art historical materials.

NYARC libraries traditionally collect museum, exhibition, auction, and dealer catalogs, along with related pricelists. They also acquire catalogues raisonnés, photographic images, and artist and art institution ephemera such as invitations and gallery checklists. These types of materials are rapidly becoming digital only, with no analog print counterparts. An example of this phenomenon is the exhibition checklist for Bound: Hans Bellmer & Unica Zürn, Ubu Gallery, New York.


Christie's auction catalog
An example of a digital auction catalog from Christie's.

Digital documents in theory have unlimited distribution, but they remain difficult to locate, and, given that the average life of a website is between 44 and 75 days (Source: Internet Archive), they are by nature ephemeral. Without an ability to collect born-digital art historical content and store it on a permanent basis, we face a potential “digital black hole” in the documentation of the art world. Failure to act creates the risk of art libraries losing access forever to important primary research materials, a risk that could jeopardize NYARC libraries’ future.

None of the existing web-based curated collections of born-digital content are capturing the sort of materials that the NYARC libraries have traditionally acquired in print. The art historical field has distinctive characteristics that require a unique solution for collecting digital materials. These include multi-stranded intellectual property issues, a literature that goes beyond the traditional monographs and serials of most humanities disciplines, and a very long tail of publishers/content creators. Moreover, many art-related sites are technically innovative and pose challenges to conventional harvesting technologies.

In 2010, the Frick Art Reference Library conducted a pilot project in partnership with the Internet Archive to capture born-digital content associated with art auctions. The project identified issues that need to be resolved before NYARC libraries can move from an ad hoc to a sustainable collecting program. Some of these issues are crawl efficiency and frequency, format challenges, intellectual property problems, and the need for a common discovery environment. 


noguchi catalog

The Isamu Noguchi [digital] catalogue raisonné.

To address the issues that arose during the Frick pilot project, the NYARC libraries, funded by the Mellon grant, will engage three consultants. One will be employed to help determine the “tipping point” (i.e., the moment of critical mass) for the transition of analog to digital formats for specialized art resources. This will involve interviewing key market leaders such as Pace Galleries, Adelson Galleries, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham’s, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Public Catalogue Foundation (UK), and others. The consultant will also conduct focus groups with the curatorial staff and information technology staff of NYARC parent institutions to determine researcher requirements and best practices for electronic archives management, respectively.  He or she will recommend what NYARC libraries should collect from a content perspective. A second consultant will review existing web archiving projects such as the Library of Congress Minerva and the UK Web Archive initiatives.  He or she will also examine approaches for collecting content such as Archive-It and the Web Archiving Service of the California Digital Library. The consultant will recommend what can be collected from a technical aspect, the best methods of web archiving, potential collaboration partners, and ways to address intellectual property, ethical, and access issues. A third consultant will review the existing technical infrastructure in light of the technical requirements and review technical solutions to the born-digital challenge at hand. He or she will recommend the best technical solutions and prepare a funding bid.

This exploratory project will be coordinated by Deborah Kempe, Chief of Collections Management and Access at the Frick Art Reference Library on behalf of NYARC.

Stephen J. Bury, Andrew W. Mellon Chief Librarian, Frick Art Reference Library


Websites have such a short life!

Yes, some sites literally disappear over night, others completely change. For a researcher or art historian who cites a url, this fluid "persistant identifier" results in dead links - or links to altered/different that intended content!

So, by collecting and preserving ever-changing web sites, we keep a historical record of art ephemera in its digital form, even after the original has gone or changed.

Have the consultant positions you mention been filled and/or will they be posted to the NYARC site as employment opportunities to the public? Thanks.

The consultant positions have been filled and we are currently mid-way through the grant period. We'll be posting outcomes of this work to the NYARC site, so watch this space!

I'd like to clarify for the folks at Internet Archive that the statement "The Frick Art Reference Library recently conducted a pilot project in partnership with the Internet Archive ..." refers to a pilot from October 2010. The study and resulting report that we did as part of the more recent 2012 study (see final reports assessed how the Internet Archive (up to its 4.8 release) address' the issues found in that earlier pilot. You may contact me for more info - Gail

Thanks, Gail. I added the date to the pilot project to avoid any confusion. - Lily

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.