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.

A Sea of Information

Oceans are vast bodies of water surrounding continents and are critical to the survival of humankind. Water sustains us and the very origin of life is found in it. What would you think if I said the same about Libraries?

We immerse ourselves in oceans every day, from the deep seas of the internet to the tides and chapters of books, the ebb and flow of social media and the sweep and pull of news and television. Gone are the days of dusty tomes, inks, and quills in Libraries. In our digital world Librarians take a central role in helping navigate the torrent of information.
In the same way as water, these seas of digital information sustain and record human life. They have become vessels where human memory and experiences are documented and can exist eternally (providing no one pulls the off switch!).
In a billion years will Twitter be the bedrock in which we sift for the fossils or traces of humanity? Are the complex digital systems we have surrounded our lives with really all that different from the cave paintings of our ancestors?
Ok, let me stop there… these are huge questions and the little boat I am adrift on is nowhere near big enough to answer them, but they are certainly ideas to paddle over.

Hello! Let me introduce myself, I’m Alex. The human body is made of water, a trace of our oceanic past, so here are a couple of insights into my own sea, the very information that makes up me:
– I am currently studying Library Science MSc part-time at City University.
– I also work in a Learning Resource Centre at West Kent College supporting students with a whole range of library related services.
– Fine Art is my academic discipline and I hope to use this subject knowledge to one day work as a Subject Librarian in the arts.
– I am left handed. Interestingly there was some obscure research carried out to prove that left-handed people adjust to sight underwater better than their right-handed kin (I am sure a scientist will tell you that is hocus pocus though).

So speaking of Science, I have always thought of Science and Mathematics as my personal Loch Ness monster, a subject full of intrigue but slightly mythical and out of my comprehending. So here I am, an artist on a Science Masters! Naturally, this feels like quite the big dive, but I have an open mind and very much look forward to seeing where the tides of science, information, and art meet.
Swimming down the river of the Masters course, I hope to pursue research on developing an information literacy programme for art and design students in academic libraries, as well as research into image collections and the boundaries of art as a document.

Here is to hoping I can stay adrift, reach an island and answer some big Library related questions along the way!