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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Online Scholarly Catalogues at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Planning to Implementation

Elizabeth Neely and Sam Quigley, The Art Institute of Chicago, USA

Abstract:

The very definition of an online scholarly publication suggests accessibility and functionalities beyond print—a complex and groundbreaking endeavor entailing many challenges and opportunities. In envisioning our version of the online scholarly catalogue, the Art Institute of Chicago’s goal was to create a publication that would embrace the exciting world of digital publishing without leaving behind the weight and authority naturally ascribed to the book format. This paper shares some of the issues and lessons learned in pursuing this ambitious undertaking.

When the Getty Foundation announced its Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) in 2008, the primary goal was “to explore the potential for scholarly collection catalogues in an online environment,” with a focus on the mechanics of digital publishing. (http://www.getty.edu/) Corollary to this daunting research agenda, however, was the desire to better understand how new means of publishing would alter organizational structures, change the ways in which we work, and affect the very nature of research itself. The reality forecast by this prescient interest did not become apparent to many of us working to develop solutions to the OSCI challenge until we were well into the effort. Indeed, last year’s progress report by the present authors on the Art Institute of Chicago’s project focused on the nature and technology of the authoring and publishing environment developed during the planning phase. (Quigley & Neely, 2011) In this paper, we will focus on the considerable growing pains (and joys) we have experienced since then, as our project has moved from planning to implementation.

OSCI at the Art Institute of Chicago

To develop its first online scholarly catalogue, the Art Institute focused on publishing two catalogues containing forty-nine paintings and twenty-three drawings by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which would ultimately become part of the series Paintings and Drawings by the Impressionist Circle in the Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, written by general editor Gloria Groom and multiple authors and conservators. A larger interdepartmental OSCI project team was assembled to focus on how the Art Institute could re-envision the scholarly catalogue as a meaningful online experience. This team included staff members from our curatorial, conservation, publications, and technology departments, assuring that a variety of viewpoints about what an online scholarly catalogue could or should be would be addressed. 

With this focus on reinvention, the Art Institute contracted IMA Lab of the Indianapolis Museum of Art in August 2010 to collaborate in developing a superior online scholarly catalogue experience using a scalable open-source platform. For a detailed description of the specification process and prototype development, please see the 2011 Museums and the Web paper “Integration of Print and Digital Workflows at the Art Institute of Chicago.” (Quigley & Neely, 2011)

Developing the Art Institute Prototype Catalogue

Guiding our development of the prototype was the desire to create a publication that would embrace the new capabilities of the web without leaving behind the weight and authority naturally ascribed to the printed book. Attentive to the needs of scholars, we set out to produce a familiar reading experience through the use of a columnar layout with inline images. The publication would have the expected scholarly apparatus—footnotes, comparative illustrations, and the like—which would be accessed in a “drawer” at the bottom of the page for easy reference. This drawer would also offer an alternative method of visually browsing the entry by presenting all of the figures together. A thumbnail image for the artwork under discussion would be present on all pages of the entries to quickly provide a means to view a full-screen enlargement while reading through the text. Additionally, readers would be provided with related archival material—transaction receipts, wills, old exhibition catalogues—consulted by the curators when writing the entries. Finally, the prototype would debut reader tools that allowed personalization of the catalogues through reader notes with subject tagging and a citation tool.

Figure 1. : The Art Institute’s OSCI publication features a familiar reading experience through the use of a columnar layout with inline interactive images.Figure 1. : The Art Institute’s OSCI publication features a familiar reading experience through the use of a columnar layout with inline interactive images.

Figure 2. : The contextual citation tool aids the reader in citing the online publication in Chicago or MLA format. The citation includes paragraph number to facilitate reference.

Figure 2. The contextual citation tool aids the reader in citing the online publication in Chicago or MLA format. The citation includes paragraph number to facilitate reference.

After nearly two years of deliberation and development, the team was pleased with the results and anxious to share the catalogues and their potential impact on scholarship at the Art Institute and in the scholarly community in general. The Getty Foundation played an active role in disseminating news about our progress, and the Art Institute offered several Skype demonstrations for other museums interested in the project. In July 2011, the Getty Foundation generously funded a three-year implementation grant to the Art Institute. In October 2011, it also awarded IMA Lab a grant to further develop the suite of open-source software tools based on our successful prototype, with the intention of facilitating online publishing of scholarly catalogues by other OSCI museums and, eventually, the larger museum community. (http://www.getty.edu/)

Moving from Prototype to Implementation

During the prototype development phase, we had the luxury of thinking expansively about building the future of scholarly publishing and about the ideal user experience for this new kind of publication. Going from envisioning to production proved to have its own set of challenges, some expected and some unexpected. Initially, the first public use of the prototype software was scheduled for June 2014, with the completion of the Monet and Renoir catalogues. The Art Institute decided to revise its launch strategy in response to the enthusiastic anticipation of the prototype and our desire to mount a usability study designed to gain mid-course feedback. This new schedule also dovetailed with the timing of the release of the open-source code for further development. We decided that the contents of the preview publication would include several entries and representative examples of collector pages and front and back matter. Essentially, the goal was to present fully operable catalogues with completed entries that would be an accurate representation of what the final catalogues would ultimately become. To accomplish this, we set an ambitious timeframe—from July 2011 to October 31, 2011—during which the team finalized and formatted content and illustrations for the proposed preview, finished the software suite with the IMA Lab, and finalized decisions based on how the software would ultimately handle some of the content.

During this four-month period, the Art Institute made several organizational changes for the implementation stage of the project to ensure the viability of the fast-approaching preview launch. It had become clear that the project required more administrative attention to coordinate the authoring teams, manage the fluid project schedules, document team decisions, ensure conflict resolution, and coordinate artwork imaging. In September 2011, Amy Weber came on board as the dedicated OSCI project coordinator, residing in the Digital Information and Access department—a significant organizational shift—and shortly thereafter a staff editor in the Publications Department was formally assigned to the project to develop a digital style guide and prepare the preview catalogues. Two months prior to the launch, the team was fully in place, but new challenges were lurking around the corner.

Meaningfully Illustrating the Catalogues

High-Resolution Master Images

Images are one of the most important features of a print catalogue, and with the vastly expanded possibilities for delivering images of all types in a web publication, it became particularly important to ensure an optimal user experience. Prelaunch usage of the prototype suggested that readers viewing image details were having difficulty understanding the details’ location and context. To solve this usability flaw, we approached these details in a completely new manner. We decided to no longer use cropped images for details; instead, the details would be zoomed-in views of a high-resolution image, and the reader would be able to determine the context through use of a “navigator,” much like that used in other programs, including Adobe Photoshop. With this method, each featured detail would come from the same master image. This change improved usability in three ways: (1) there is no risk of different lighting and coloring in various details since all come from the same image; (2) the image detail view is easily recognized as part of the overall image; (3) readers can zoom in and out from the selected detail view to further investigate the surrounding areas.

Figure 3. : The “navigator” orients readers to the location of a detail in the context of the overall painting.Figure 3. : The “navigator” orients readers to the location of a detail in the context of the overall painting.

Though this method solved usability and technical problems, it also caused some backtracking, since the photography done earlier in the year for the paintings was not of a sufficiently high resolution to be used in this manner. Despite the time required and the adverse effect on our exhibition galleries, the decision was made to re-photograph all of the paintings at a resolution that would allow readers to fill the screen with an image of the artist’s signature. Of course, a great benefit of the decision to provide eye-popping, zoomable images is that readers are now able to better explore each painting in an unprecedented way, almost as if under a magnifying glass.

Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer

A primary goal of the Art Institute’s online catalogue project was to give full access to the research supporting the entries, essentially allowing readers to “test” the hypotheses of the authors. To this end, the Art Institute long conceived of online entries that would include copious technical imagery, details on support and technique, pigment analysis, and condition assessment—a vital part of research that, with space constraints and high costs per page, print catalogues are rarely able to afford.

Behind the scenes, conservators research the artist’s process by imaging artworks under different lighting conditions—including X-ray, infrared reflectogram (IRR), transmitted infrared (IR), ultraviolet, and raking light—both to facilitate their own research and to inform curatorial research. At the risk of oversimplifying, these different views of the same artwork help researchers “see through” the history of the painting, potentially revealing how the artist may have reworked it during the creation process. Researchers routinely use layers, annotations, and zoom capabilities in Adobe Photoshop to find underdrawings and underpaintings in order to determine how the artist modified the composition or technique. The Art Institute’s online catalogues endeavor to put that access directly into the hands of readers.

We feel that we have been successful in developing an intuitive and flexible tool for presenting these images and annotations. The ‘Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer’ is designed to facilitate the viewer’s exploration and comparison of the technical images. The reader may select any pair of images and, using the slider bar, fade between the selected technical image layers. Line annotations designed to draw attention to significant features in associated technical imagery may be turned on and off in any combination. When overlaid onto the technical image, the conservators’ annotations help the viewer to better observe how features in the technical images relate to or diverge from the surface composition. The Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer provides a powerful tool for scholars that we anticipate will be used for myriad research functions in the future.

Figure 4. : The Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer facilitates the viewer’s exploration and comparison of the technical images.

Figure 4. : The Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer facilitates the viewer’s exploration and comparison of the technical images.

The Image Registration Problem

In preparing for the preview launch, we discovered a serious gap between the theory and practice of preparing images for presentation in the Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer—namely, the lack of exacting registration among the image layers. Most technical images are captured with different cameras and go through different image stitching processes to build a full picture of the artwork under various lighting conditions. Each of these variables introduces distortions to the composite images, so that when one is layered on top of another, they do not match up precisely. In print publications, manual adjustments are made to correct for distortion in an area, or the problem is irrelevant because the two images need not be overlaid on the printed page.

In the case of the Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer, however, the problem of minute differences was compounded by the many layers we hoped to offer together at a high zoom level. Initial testing with Monet’s Beach at Sainte-Adresse showed that the problem was obvious when fading between the natural-light and X-ray image layers: the boat in the foreground seemed to rock up and down as though it were in motion. This difference in the images caused by distortion could be mistaken for a composition change. Thus, it became apparent that unless all the layers could be perfectly registered with one another, a reader would not be able to distinguish between the true differences revealed by the image layers and the differences introduced by distortion, rendering the image viewer useless as a scholarly tool.

The Art Institute experimented with some open-source image registration programs, mainly looking at tools used in satellite imaging and mapping to address this problem. The results, however, were unsatisfactory. Seeking a solution, the Art Institute’s Grainger Executive Director of Conservation, Frank Zuccari, reinitiated conversations on the subject with the Senior Imaging Scientist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., John K. Delaney, and George Washington University Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Murray H. Loew. Delaney and Loew had developed a method of systematically analyzing technical image layers in comparison with a common base image using an algorithm to identify registration points throughout the layers. These registration points are used to eliminate distortions within the layers and, by extension, within the entire sandwich of layers. (Conover, Delaney, Ricciardi, & Loew, 2011) As a result, the Art Institute is implementing a new imaging workflow, which includes utilizing Delaney and Lowe’s pioneering methodology on two dedicated registration workstations. This is a giant leap not only for our publishing agenda, but also for all of our collection research by providing conservators and curators a better tool to compare a painting under these different technical lighting conditions.

Workflows for Securing and Preparing Catalogue Images

Perhaps one of the most complicated aspects of the image authoring workflow was the sourcing and preparing of images due to high volume. In the preview catalogues, each entry averages a remarkable fifty-eight figure references (Monet’s Beach at Sainte-Adresse has seventy-one). To produce a fully illustrated catalogue, four general types of images needed to be captured, prepared, and organized: natural-light high-resolution artwork photography, comparative illustrations from outside institutions, technical imagery from the conservation lab, and archival documentation. The effort to collect all of these images was complicated by the additional challenge of crossing over and involving many different departments within the museum. To avoid confusion and the chance an illustration would be forgotten, we relied on shared Excel documents, daily communication, and our project coordinator to track each image. The following is a description of the necessary processes.

Natural-Light Artwork Photography
The Imaging Department provided the high-resolution plate images that serve as the source for all image details in the entries. The entries’ authors, in concert with the editor, determined the details necessary to illustrate the author’s points. The project coordinator then set up each of these crops within Drupal using the master image.  

Comparative Illustrations
Mirroring a printed catalogue workflow, the Publications Department was made responsible for sourcing and securing rights on comparative illustrations, as this is a task already handled by the department for print publications. Abiding by licensing contracts, we used a general policy prohibiting zoom of comparative illustrations in the catalogues.  

Technical Imaging
By far the most numerous and requiring the most preparation, technical images necessitated continuous and fluid communication among the conservation, curatorial, and publications departments and the project coordinator. Images for the Multilayer Interactive Image Viewer were delivered as multilayered Photoshop documents. Each Photoshop layer was extracted and uploaded as a Drupal asset by the project coordinator. Bitmapped annotation layers were converted to SVG vector files to allow for scaling on zoom. Conservation provided the project coordinator with a master map of locations where images of samples and cross sections were captured. The appropriate image guide was then prepared for each image. This is a cumbersome process that we have reflected upon since the launch, and we are actively looking for ways to streamline and simplify it. 

Archival Documentation
Early in the research process, archival documentation—including photographs of collectors, collectors’ wills, and rare exhibition catalogues—were identified for scanning and inclusion in the catalogues by curatorial staff. JSTOR contractually allowed us to use its already scanned documents from the Art Institute’s Ryerson Library collection for PDF linking. This significantly helped our workflow by alleviating the need to scan many additional articles. 

Once the OSCI project coordinator prepared all images in Drupal, the editor inserted the appropriate figure references within the text and determined with the authors which images would be featured inline in the catalogues and at what size.

Editorial Expectations in an Online Publication

The launch of the usability preview was challenging due to a very tight deadline and the fact that we were still finding our way within the new paradigm of online publishing and the workflows associated with it. Beyond image challenges, one unexpected stress that emerged was the attitude toward the editing process in the digital arena. In the final stages of a print catalogue, there are clear periods for galley review and finalizing text. Traditionally, in print production, authors do not have access to work in progress after the text is in the hands of the typesetter. For our project, by contrast, the final stages of the production process were implemented in Drupal, to which every member of the team had access. Hence, authors had the ability to ask for improvements and changes throughout the process. While in many cases, this is an advantage of online production, it proved challenging when changes in one area cascaded into other areas in a potentially haphazard progression, as changes and errors were commented upon in no orderly way.

Clearly, publishing in the digital arena is causing us to rethink the style and sequencing of the editorial process. Not unlike some of the previous major changes in the way we produce written materials—think for a moment of the shift to word processing—new technological methodology forces us to reexamine assumptions and aspirations for our procedures and organizational collaboration. To systematize and revamp our recent digital editorial experience, we will implement an editorial review schedule, which outlines specific periods when contributors will review the Drupal draft and when any resulting changes will be implemented. We started employing this pattern in the last weeks of our preview launch preparation and found that this “virtual galley schedule” seemed to put everyone more at ease by indicating when input was needed. As we move forward, we are confident that we will further develop procedures that allow us to take advantage of the fluidity and speed of editorial interchange afforded by the digital environment, while at the same time providing a much-needed set of predictable practices.

Preview Launch—November 11, 2011

On November 11, 2011, we launched our usability preview of the Art Institute’s catalogues. The preview offers a nearly complete view of the catalogues as they will be when published in their entirety. There are only a few features that we did not include for the launch (such as search and print) that will be available in the future.

During the first week of the public launch, Carol Vogel’s New York Times column commended the new technological features of the catalogues, while Elizabeth Neely, Art Institute Director of Digital Information and Access, officially presented them at the Museum Computing Network conference. The catalogues were met with much excitement and anticipation. At the end of the first week of the public launch, they had received over one thousand visits.

To further herald the preview and seek specific feedback from the intended audience, the Art Institute put together a concentrated communications campaign targeting scholars. Our largest publicity measure was undertaken through a listserv promotion that consisted of eleven listservs geared toward the art historical, conservation, museum publishing, technology, and library communities. A short introductory email was sent to each listserv over the course of several weeks, soliciting viewers’ responses to the catalogues.

We set up three means to officially garner feedback in order to more fully gauge the usability of the catalogues. First, we created a systematic survey that through twenty-three questions inquired about the reader’s experience and view on various features of the catalogues. These questions were formulated to reflect usability as well as interest about many aspects of the catalogues. Second, in order to allow scholars to freely respond without the constraints of a survey, we set up an email account for readers to send their comments and questions directly. Finally, we enabled Google Analytics in order to statistically record who was visiting, for how long, where they were coming from to better understand the catalogues’ demographics and numbers.

As of January 31, 2012, the catalogues have been visited 3,875 times from 76 different museums and other cultural institutions and 117 universities, with readers spending on average over 12 minutes exploring them. Our demographics are geographically wide, with readers from 47 states and 53 countries. The qualitative feedback has been more limited; we have had 96 survey respondents and 11 individual emails. The respondents are curators, conservators, technologists, publishing professionals, librarians and archivists, and general museumgoers. The majority of the survey respondents have been conservators (28.6%), with researchers coming in second (19.8%), and librarians and archivists rounding out the top three (17.6%). Our survey shows that most—regardless of discipline—view the conservation imagery as the most innovative aspect of the catalogues; curators and researchers are just as interested in the conservation images as conservators are in the publishing platform. Significantly, our survey respondents have been largely (64.9%) composed of scholars—our intended audience.

Nearly 90% of respondents said that the catalogues were either “very easy” or “somewhat easy” to navigate, with more than half (57.8%) indicating that there were not any aspects of the catalogues that they had difficulty accessing. Many hailed the catalogues as “remarkable,” a “game-changer,” and “ahead of [their] time.” The luxurious imagery, innovative technology, and conceptual envisioning of a new collection catalogue were just a few of the features most highly praised.

Four main categories of criticism clearly emerged: browser compatibility (16%), icons (14%), navigation (12%), and speed (3%). Upon accessing the catalogues, a reader encounters a disclaimer that clearly states their optimization for Chrome and Safari browsers. Since so many of our visitors still use Firefox and Internet Explorer, as revealed through Google Analytics, browser compatibility and performance speed are currently being addressed through our ongoing collaboration with the IMA Lab in order to improve the reader experience.

The icons and navigation issues were a bit murkier to wade through. We received some comments lauding the intuitiveness of the catalogue, while others indicated disorientation. We recognize that this is a new presentation style that will take some readers time to comfortably embrace. We are confident, however, that the majority of readers (especially those who take the time to view our short how-to video) will be able to use the catalogues with little or no impedance.

Most significantly, our results have shown our target audience’s willingness to embrace digital scholarship. For example, 95% of the respondents who were involved with a scholarly research community and answered the question said that they would reference and cite the catalogues as they would a printed scholarly collection catalogue. Additionally, 100% of the respondents who identified themselves as professors or members of an academic community and answered the question stated that they would find such a publication a valuable addition to a colleague’s tenure portfolio and would encurage their students to reference and cite the catalogues.

Organizational Change

To fully embrace online scholarly publishing as a truly transformational opportunity and not just as a PDF of the printed page, digital media professionals and technologists need to play an active role in supporting the digital authoring process. As Nik Honeysett, Head of Administration at the Getty Museum, pointed out, every museum has an option of simply posting a PDF of a catalogue and having it figuratively just sit on the web. This does not, in his words, address the important questions: “How will an audience consume the catalogue? How will they find it? How will they use a PDF? . . . [We can] create a much more engaging, useful, usable and citable version of its predecessor.” (Honeysett, 2011) To help ask and pursue these questions, technologists must be willing and welcomed to engage with their colleagues, curators, editors, educators, administrators, and conservators to help facilitate and drive this important discussion.

Drawing from print publishing analogues, technologists and digital media specialists can take cues from editorial models. An editor does not merely copyedit a manuscript but has a formative impact on the publication by helping the author communicate his or her research themes. An editor critically examines a text, sometimes pushes the author beyond his or her boundaries to promote clarity, bends and makes compromises to the author’s needs when appropriate, and listens closely to the author to best translate and hone the original intention. Similarly and parallel to the continuing role of the editor, technologists and digital media specialists can help shape and support the author’s vision for digital publications by critically examining the use of media, encouraging the author to fully engage the possibilities, maintaining flexibility on these options, and listening very closely to ensure technology is used to sharpen the narrative for the best possible outcome.

Significantly, the authors of the Monet and Renoir preview opted to acknowledge the lead technologists as contributors to the online catalogues. This demonstrates their view of just how vital a technologist’s vision and perspective is to developing an online publication. Similarly, the online magazine Triple Canopy also considers their interactive programmers coauthors, since their work with the authors and artists is fundamental to bringing the article to fruition. (Kleiman, 2011)

Collaboration is nothing new for technologists and digital media specialists. We have been collaborating with other museum professionals for years on websites and exhibition interactives. But as technology offers even more opportunities to enhance the core functions of scholarly publishing within our institutions, there is the opportunity to collaborate more deeply and meaningfully in the formative stages of this work. Technologists and digital media specialists, however, will need to earn this enhanced collaborative role by building trust with curatorial, conservation, publications, and technology teams. This is an important and exciting opportunity to be more closely and deeply involved in shaping the scholarly research and interpretation of our collections—and fulfilling our museums’ missions.

The Evolving Digital Publishing Environment

To keep abreast of reader expectations and authoring opportunities, the Art Institute continues monitoring the quickly evolving digital publishing landscape. In January 2012, the percentage of adult Americans owning at least one digital reading device, defined as a tablet or e-book reader, jumped to a significant 29%. (Rainie, 2012) Of course there is a wide variance in the capabilities of these devices; the most basic require an e-book format, while others are essentially fully functional computers.

Apple’s recent announcement of iBooks Textbook, in partnership with the educational publishing giants Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson, will surely influence how authors and contributors aspire to integrate media to better illustrate narratives. (Apple, 2012) The companion iBooks Author has promising features for easily creating media-rich publications, if only for the iPad platform. (Capelle, 2012) The Art Institute will want to take cues and learn from the best of these offerings as we move forward with the OSCI publishing tools.

In the museum field, we have also seen an increase in e-book offerings. Notably, the Guggenheim New York recently published its first e-book exhibition catalogue to accompany the exhibit Maurizio Cattelan: All. The museum is also concurrently providing access to sixty fully scanned catalogues with the help of the Internet Archive project. (Van Natten, 2011) Once again, though, the e-book format is limited in its ability to be interactive—an e-book hallmark that we were careful to avoid. The MPublishing blog of the University of Michigan’s publishing office compared the Guggenheim’s offering with the Art Institute’s preview catalogues: “As newly-designed-for-the-screen digital objects rather than merely digitized versions of print volumes, the AIC catalogues have much more functionality than the Guggenheim’s digitized out-of-print titles.” (Kahn, 2011) Notwithstanding the differences in features, the Guggenheim’s offerings are a fantastic step forward in access to these resources. One could speculate that in the future the Art Institute could very well strategically include e-books in its publishing portfolio along side deeper OSCI offerings, especially for sought-after out-of-print catalogues.

Concluding Remarks

We recognize that we have come a long way on what was initially an uncharted path. Moving forward, we are well aware of the many questions that remain to be more fully discussed in order to integrate online scholarly publishing into our museum’s agenda. Are we properly staffed and organized to accomplish the highly collaborative nature of these projects? How will OSCI coexist with our print publishing schedules and priorities? How do we more thoroughly integrate digital publishing with our collection management system for long-term sustainability? What are the business models by which we can offer our catalogues to the public online? How do we stay current in the rapidly evolving digital publication environment? There are no easy answers, but because we are committed to publishing in the digital age, we know that we must develop innovative solutions and stay abreast of the evolving technological landscape.

Acknowledgements

The Art Institute’s online scholarly publications were made possible by grants from the Getty Foundation and major support from the David and Mary Winton Green Research Fund. The authors wish to acknowledge the help of Amy Weber, OSCI Project Coordinator, and Susan Weidemeyer, Editor in writing this paper as well as the support of the entire OSCI team.

References

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