To See a World in a Grain of Sand – Filtering Fine Art with Metadata

Metadata sounds alien, complicated and like something Doctor Who would theorise about to his companion. Despite the vagueness, the nature of Metadata is to be incredibly helpful to us fellow Librarians and our service users. For those of you who like me are visually minded and enjoy a good metaphor, allow me to introduce you to the artist and oracle William Blake. Mr Blake is going to kindly reinterpret Metadata for us:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”.

What could sound more eloquent or more beautiful? To see the world in a grain of sand, this is what Metadata does for us. Imagine the expanse of a golden, sun touched desert. Within the windswept sands, there holds a numerous amount of data, molecules, and atoms. An entire microscopic world is contained within one single gleaming speck. Well, Metadata helps us see that world, with clarity, by magnifying and filtering through the sand.
Have I lost you in a world of metaphors? Ok, less prophetic poetry and more fact. Metadata is best translated as ‘data about data’ and it can be seen as structured categories that help to find, retrieve and control information. (Pomerantz, J. 2015).
For libraries, the most common example of Metadata is found in the search terms of the library catalogue, and these are an essential way of filtering through documents so that service users can find resources easily. The library catalogue is Blake’s heaven in a wild flower, it is a portal to knowledge and a place to see the entire world.

So why is Metadata important for the Fine Art practice and how can Library and Information professionals help?
In our digital world, art exists online in an abundant oasis and this provides Art and Design students with endless inspiration and pools for creativity. Websites such as Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, with their ease of access, have made it easy to build giant dunes of images. In piling up so much data, finding professional and high quality images of art can feel like you are sinking in quicksand (and not to mention the grainy pixels!).
Art is also highly interpretive, and anyone familiar with it will know that the subject matter, medium, and content are not always translated in the title of the work. In order to gain a reliable search result, an information professional with specific subject knowledge must interpret the art and go through the process of adding descriptive metadata. The very fact that we must use words to describe a work of art means that the old saying “a painting can speak a thousand words” has never been more apt. (Baca, M. 2002).

Held within the lofty aether of academic libraries, Art Librarians hold the kingdom keys to visual information with their detailed knowledge of the rapid advancements in technology, social media, and contemporary art. They are able to deliver tailored visual literacy workshops and study skill sessions that help hone the craft of locating and understanding images from across the arts. (Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. 2017).
While we are all guiltily and gluttonously using Google Images for their fast food style search service, Librarians can provide unique support that encourages users to go beyond Google, escaping the algorithm and questioning what it is they are not being shown. By assisting service users to access validated image collections and databases, like ARTstor for example, what they can guarantee is that a professional with subject knowledge has added descriptive metadata to the images and that this information is also embedded in the image file itself. Details of the copyright, date, creator and the title of the artwork are precisely defined and provide an accurate basis for service users who are referencing this visual information.

Our digital society is richly saturated with information and images. If Librarians can break stereotypes and truly inspire students and academic staff to act on natural inquisitiveness when researching, and demonstrate the boons of better study skills, then we are on the right tracks to becoming trustworthy, reliable and accurate advisors in the sandstorm that is big data.


References:

Baca, M. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand words: Metadata for art objects and their visual surrogates. ALCTS Papers on Library Technical Services and Collections. pp.131-138.

Blake, W. & Lincoln, A. (2006). Songs of innocence & of experience. Tate Publishing. London.

Glassman, P. & Dyki, J. (2017). The handbook of art and design librarianship. 2nd Edition. Facet Publishing. London.

Pomerantz, J. (2015). Metadata. The MIT Press. Cambridge. Massachesetts.


Image:

Bell, A. (2017). To hold the world. [collage]. UK.

Swept Away with the Tide – The Big Picture in an Ocean of Images

Two inspiring and highly topical classes by Lyn Robinson have left my mind feeling expanded, excited and terrified! After the second class, there was a huge temptation to run home, burn all my technology, grab my favourite Terry Pratchett novel and flee to a cabin in the woods. What I am starting to grasp is that data, documents, and images, are everywhere. In my last post, I pondered romantically over the notion that data is simply a ‘sea of information’. A rookie mistake, data is much more like a vast swirling galaxy, set in the black velvet of deep space, reaching to infinity and beyond. Data is omnipresent!

Time to weigh my options:
1) Carry out the ‘cabin in the woods’ plan and live my days in blissful ignorance of technology and the inescapable data.
2) Buy a Cat.
3) Let myself be swept away with the tide, explore, read, soak up what I am learning like a sponge, and try to find the bigger picture.

Let us go for option 3… it sounds like that could be an exciting odyssey.


Swept Away with the Tide – The Big Picture in an Ocean of Images.

Before the arrival of our dear friend the internet, viewing images required much more physicality than that of our digital generation. To see one of J. M. W. Turner’s beautifully elemental paintings, you would have to traverse to a gallery or visit a library to find a book on him. Master painters were singular content creators, and in the solace of their studio this was a solitary process. Cue scene… here comes the tidal wave… meet… the Internet!

The advancement of technology and open access to the world wide web has been a sweeping tide for the contemporary art practice. Art is now part of a collaborative and multidisciplinary digital world. No longer does art have a restricted creation within its own industry. Anyone with access to technology and the internet can create and share visual content. (Arbelo, M. 2014).
It is also now possible to follow practising artists on social media, feasting your eyes on real time art and infinite content. It does not end there too, endless newsprint, television, and smartphones bombard our eyes daily with images.

What does this all mean for the Library & Information Science profession?
Firstly, we must question the boundaries of contemporary art as a document. Visual literacy explores Paintings as a document and the ways in which they contain historical, social and political context. As the Fine Art practice has expanded into conceptual, installation and performance based work, we will have to develop new ways of documenting and making art accessible in the Library.
Secondly, information literacy, copyright, and censorship have become important ethics that Library and Information professionals must be aware of.
The IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers states that “Librarians and other information workers reject the denial and restriction of access to information and ideas most particularly through censorship whether by states, governments, or religious or civil society institutions.” (IFLA. 2017).
To provide freedom of information is what every Librarian should aspire to, however, in an academic library is this truly possible? The two mighty leviathans that are Safeguarding and Equality, Diversity & Inclusion are a legal requirement and moral responsibility within the education sector. Balancing freedom of information alongside safeguarding and EDI is not easy.

Recently in my own workplace, I encountered a group of Fashion & Textiles students who were having trouble accessing images from the Vogue Archive, within our virtual learning environment. It is not uncommon for images to hit the firewall and become censored. Unavoidably, fashion and art often explore sensitive content (also read as… nudity!). I am contractually obliged to safeguard students from sensitive material. Is the service then restricting learning if it is unable to provide uncensored access to images? The truth is I am not sure I know the answer yet. I hope further studies at CityLIS will bring clarity to my obligations as a Librarian and help me find the bigger picture in a complex ocean of images, data and ethics.


References:

Arbelo, M & Franco, J. (2014). “Towards Digital Art in Information Society”. CLCWeb Comparative Literature and Culture. Volume 16, Issue 5.

IFLA. (2017). Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers. Available at: https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/11092#colleague. (Accessed: 09 October 2017).