Archives & Museum Informatics








last updated:
October 7, 2014 2:55 PM

J. Trant. "Framing the Picture: Standards for Imaging Systems", ICHIM/MCN, San Diego, CA, Oct. 1995.

5. Image Use

The usefulness of an image database depends upon the ability to retrieve images which are of interest, to view them (either displaying or to printing) and to manipulate them (sorting, grouping and annotating). Standards are required to support these functions, and to ensure that visual information can be managed alongside other information types in the larger networked information arena.


Textual description remains the key to retrieval of images. As images can be of wide-ranging interest, the process of assigning index-terms when cataloguing is complex. It is difficult to characterize the "subject" of an image. For example "A set of photographs of a busy street scene a century ago might be useful to historians wanting a 'snapshot' of the times, to architects looking at buildings, to urban planners looking at traffic patterns or building shadows, to cultural historians looking at changes in fashion, to medical researchers looking at female smoking habits, to sociologists looking at class distinctions, or to students looking at the use of certain photographic processes or techniques."59 Each of these users brings their own perspective, and their own set of retrieval characteristics to an image database.60

Further research on the use of visual information as a resource will improve our ability to structure retrieval systems to support broad use. What has been termed "Point of View" is being examined in the context of the work of the CIMI Consortium,61 and promises an increased understanding of the questions asked of a museum by the general public.

When images are made available over networks such as the Internet, integrating visual information with other forms of textual information is important. Mapping characteristics of visual information into existing information retrieval standards - such as the Z39.50 protocol - will be critical to the broader accessibility of image data. CIMI's work should prove helpful here as well.

The ability to search image databases based on purely 'visual' characteristics is still in the experimental stage. The Query By Image Content (QBIC) system tries to find images "like" one chosen as an example, or matching a pattern drawn by the searcher.62 Other systems experimenting with matching pattern, texture and outline in images, to some limited success.63 Still others are focusing on browsing as a technique for identifying relevant visual images.64

Image Display or Output

Viewing a digital image requires its display on a monitor or its output to a printing device. Display technology is still the weakest link in the image quality chain. For example, an image can be captured at a much higher resolution and dynamic range than it can be displayed on the majority of monitors; SVGA monitors only support 8-bit color, to a maximum resolution of 1280x1024.65

Getting an accurate rendering of the digital information in an image file remains difficult. When displayed on a monitor using a cathode ray tube (CRT), colour is represented as three additive values of red, green and blue. Differently calibrated of monitors will render in the same image differently; careful calibration is essential to maintain consistency between images manipulated on different workstations.

When images are printed using the four-colour process, varying hues are created through combinations of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Conversion to CMYK from RGB colour space require considerable care if quality printed output is to match the appearance of a digital files.66

Colour management systems are being developed to deal with these issues, but none can be considered standard as of yet.67

Image Analysis

The full use of visual information in digital form will depend upon the ability to work with images in a digital environment. Tools which support the analysis of visual information, including image sorting, grouping, annotating and manipulation are only slowly becoming available.68

Intellectual Property

Key to the availability of visual information over networks will be the resolution of the current stasis regarding the management of intellectual property rights. The lack of efficient mechanisms for the clearance of rights has made the development of some systems unrealistic. Others bypass the permissions process entirely, relying on gray areas copyright law, or working, in the United States, under a broad interpretation of the doctrine of 'fair use'. Neither of these strategies is satisfactory, from either the perspective of the information user or the information provider.

Developing a appropriate intellectual property framework will require a complex balancing of the interests of rights holders and the desires of those who use images for teaching, research or enjoyment. Progress in this arena has been slow, particularly internationally, as differences in national law have stood in the way of collaboration. One positive sign, on the national level in the United States, is the production Sample CD-ROM Licensing Agreements for Museums, by the MUSE Multi-Media Study Group. 69 Designed to reflect the 'views and opinions of museum professionals" these sample texts with a helpful gloss, offer a starting point for museums faced with negotiating the use of digital images of works from their collection in published, commercial, fixed-media titles. This is a significant first step forward, addressing one of the major ways by which digital images of works in museum collections are now distributed. It reinforces the position that contracts reflect a negotiated position, and asserts the rights that the cultural heritage community may wish to protect.

The networked distribution of digital images requires the development and implementation of new paradigms for intellectual property management. Just as our concepts of geography, and "site" are being challenged by a global network that knows no boundaries - so too are our conceptions of "original" and "copy" dissolving into infinitely replicable reality. Our old models of property translate with great difficulty into network space; we need to look for new ways to manage and license the distribution of information.70

Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL)

The Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) Project offers an opportunity to explore new means of information distribution and new mechanisms for licensing. This two year collaboration brings representative museums, colleges and universities together to define the terms and conditions for educational use of museum images and information on campus-wide networks. MESL will develop methods and guidelines for the educational use of digitized museum materials. This 'good-faith' collaboration is defining define terms for image capture and distribution, and developing guidelines for the educational use of museum images and accompanying information. The Project's goal is to develop and test administrative, technical and legal mechanisms that will enable the delivery of large quantities of high-quality images from any museum to any educational institution.71

Next Section: 6. Conclusion

Informatics: The interdisciplinary study of information content, representation, technology and applications,
and the methods and strategies by which information is used in organizations, networks, cultures and societies.