Improving Art History Education: Library and Faculty Partnerships in Instructional Technology Development
This article discusses the provenance of a partnership between the Digital Projects Department (DPD) at Northern Illinois University (NIU) Libraries and NIU’s Art History Department that seeks to improve art education at NIU. Academic librarians and other library personnel have unique skills, which along with providing traditional library services, should be utilized to meet instructional and educational challenges. Since DPD has a history of providing access to multimedia content via the Internet, it seemed natural to partner with the art history department to create a tool for accessing slides of artwork via the Web.
In an age when students and faculty underutilize library services, librarians need to better market their skills in order to remain relevant on today’s campuses. Many articles routinely cite the need for library-faculty collaboration in the pursuit of this goal, but these calls generally describe programs of traditional library instruction and information literacy. 1 While these are important objectives, today’s librarian can offer much more. Aca demic librarians in particular have a technical skill set that can be use not only for providing access to materials, but also for developing tools for instructors to be used in the classroom. 2 As an example, the Digital Projects department (DPD) at Nor thern Illinois University (NIU) Lib raries is currently working with the Art History department to offer image slides via the Web that can be searched and integrated into classes. This paper reviews how this library-faculty collaboration emerged, and how all parties are working together to make this a reality.
The DPD at Northern Illinois Univer sity Libraries (NIUL) has produced a series of multimedia Web sites dedicated to Illinois history. 3 The sites provide searchable databases of primary documents and images, historians’ video and textual evaluations of important events, interactive maps that show demographic and voting information for the United States and Illinois from the years 1820–1860, and lesson plans that integrate these materials for use in the classroom. The success of the DPD comes from its collaboration with other departments on campus and with other institutions throughout the state of Illinois.
DPD staff works with partner institutions to provide the technology and primary sources that make up the Web sites. The database and search scripts come from a partnership with the University of Chicago. Other partner institutions provide content, including the Newberry Library, the Illinois State Archives, and Illinois State University.
In addition to working with other institutions, DPD has worked with departments on campus to develop digital resources that incorporate their unique skills and knowledge. the Communication department, with its experience in film production, assisted DPD in creating original video and sound files. The Faculty Development Office trained project staff in Adobe Premiere and Real Producer to offer these files on project Web sites. The response of these departments showed that the university community is a supportive, collaborative environment.
Within the library, many people and departments contributed to make projects successful. The systems department offered technical support. Much of the material came from Rare Books and Special Collections. Art librarian Charles Larry created graphics and assisted in the design and layout of the Web site. The diverse skill set and material resources found within the library illustrated how all library departments can contribute to the success of the whole. The experience suggested that this type of technological collaboration with the rest of the university might be successful as well.
Problem and Possible Options
The opportunity for testing the hypothesis came about when a new art history professor told the art librarian about an e-reserves collection of images at her former institution, and how she would like to see that offered at NIU. The art librarian looked to the DPD for assistance. The professor brought the thumbnails, full-size images, and captions from her former institution and DPD quickly made a new static Web site for her upcoming course. The site was placed on the library’s electronic reserve site so that it would be password-protected and available only to students registered in her course (see figures 1 and 2).
Figure 1. Course Image List with Thumbnails
Figure 2. Full-size Image with Caption
Discussions with the professor made clear that providing Web access to slide images is of utmost importance for providing art history education. NIU has a slide library, but access is rudimentary at best in that students are restricted by the library’s hours of operation and by limited access to a standalone database for image searching. Currently, students must squint and peer at rapidly disintegrating slides on a light box, which does not provide projection for enlarging the image. Slides have a tendency to get lost, are in great demand, and may even be in use at a course lecture at the time a student requires them. It seems unthinkable that students need to resort to such inefficient means to examine their subject in the digital age. The professor returned to her department and discussed the possibility of working with the library to offer similar pages for all art history faculty members. Not surprisingly, they were enthusiastic about the prospect of having digital access to the slide collection, so the professor coordinated meetings between the director and technical coordinator of the DPD and the art history faculty.
At the first meeting with the art history faculty, the group examined a number of different issues including faculty wants and needs, short-term and long-term goals of digitizing slides, initial technical considerations, and how to begin the process of developing such a project. Most art history professors had seen the original site, illustrated in figures 1 and 2, and agreed on a similar design that included thumbnail and full-size images and captions. Since each professor emphasizes different characteristics of the images for their students, all agreed that they needed to be able to control the content of the image captions for their individual courses. Professors also wanted to be able to search, browse, and select images for each course with the ability to edit, update, and change the image set each semester. Professors also wanted the ability to add their own personal slides to an online collection.
At the outset, the art history faculty realized that there should be short-term and long-term goals for this plan. With tens of thousands of images in the slide library, it seemed improbable that we would be able to obtain funding and be able to digitize all of the slides in a reasonable length of time. The faculty determined that a small set of images could be easily selected for an initial digitization plan, with the long-term goal of digitizing the majority of images within the slide library.
There was more concern and discussion about technical decisions. The group raised concerns about slide quality, size and space concerns for the server, who would do the scanning, how updates would be made, and the ease of database entry and editing. Due to copyright considerations, password protection for images was also necessary.
At the conclusion of the first meeting, it was decided that financing and grant availability and software options for the image database held first priority. While funding would impact the success of the project, the technical considerations were immediately pertinent to library and faculty collaboration in the development of instructional tools. Selecting database software was the first technical issue that needed resolution.
Students, faculty, and library personnel had used the slide library’s standalone FileMaker Pro 3.0 database to locate images within the physical slide library and the slide librarian used it to create slide labels. Utilizing the existing database seemed the best use of existing resources. It would also be beneficial to allow Web access to this database, but Web access proved problematic. One issue was that field-size limitations for label printing resulted in content being appended to incorrect fields. Enabling Web accessibility would eliminate the ability to label slides. Another issue involved the nonlibrary slides that faculty needs for their individual class slide collections. Built-in authority controls on the data-entry metadata language to enable the search functionality would be necessary for the professors to make their own additions. Because the online database would be the access point for slides within the library, it would also be necessary to distinguish the library’s slides from slides in an individual professor’s collection.
DPD had no experience working with FileMaker Pro, so research was necessary to find the easiest way for the department to provide Web accessibility for the database and be able to add information regarding images, captions, and courses. It was important to balance a number of different issues, including ease of and time commitment in designing and creating the online slide library, Web access to the existing slide library database, a method for database correction, ability of professors to select images online and perform data entry, and the implementation of course-specific selections and captions. The FileMaker Pro database application and its capabilities were examined along with other options for database development, conversion, and Web accessibility. Three possible options were reviewed: (1) maintaining the FileMaker Pro database; (2) converting the FileMaker Pro database to Microsoft Access and using its Web-publishing capabilities; and (3) converting the FileMaker Pro database to MySQL and using PHP to make it available on the Web.
The first option, maintaining the database in FileMaker Pro, would have required an upgrade because FileMaker Pro 3.0 does not have Web-publishing capability. Newer versions of FileMaker Pro have built-in Web-publishing capabilities (Instant Web Publishing). The advantage of this option would have been that the slide librarian could have easily continued working with a familiar database format. Drawbacks to this option were DPD’s unfamiliarity with the program and its capabilities for Web accessibility. DPD could not evaluate the newer FileMaker Pro edition except through purchase, and online comments indicated that it was difficult to make Web forms that were not based upon the built-in templates. Based on this information, upgrading to a newer edition of FileMaker Pro seemed an untenable solution. 4 Another perceived problem with FileMaker Pro was its operating system limitations. In the past, FileMaker Pro has only worked on the Windows and MacIntosh platforms, although FileMaker Pro 6.0 Unlimited Web server capability extends to Red Hat Linux. In addition to the purchase of FileMaker Pro 6.0 Unlimited, it would have been best to also invest in FileMaker Server for Red Hat Linux. Although UNIX, Linux, and Windows 2000 servers were available, DPD was most familiar with UNIX/Linux and open-source solutions. As a general rule, DPD is reluctant to utilize proprietary software and prefers to use open-source solutions. Given that the slide library was still using the version of FileMaker Pro from 1995, it seemed unlikely that funds would be available for upgrades.
Converting to Microsoft Access, the second option, was another possible solution, but while it had some benefits compared with FileMaker Pro it also had some of the same problems. DPD maintains Access databases for metadata, so the comfort level with Access was high and the slide librarian would not have had much trouble adapting to it. Microsoft Access is a product that the university will continue to use in the future, so upgrades would happen through university licensing agreements. Thus the Art History department would not be responsible for the costs of upgrading. Accessing the database information through Perl instead of using other proprietary solutions made it a cost-effective solution. 5 The shortcomings of Access were similar to those of FileMaker Pro. It only runs on Windows operating systems and it would be difficult for DPD to create the Web-form capabilities that the project requires.
The final option, and the one that was most appealing to DPD, was converting the database to MySQL and using PHP to deliver it via the Web. DPD had experience using this process to offer images on previous project Web sites. 6 It is an open-source solution that offers required functionality and it is freely available, meaning that upgrades would not be an issue. 7 Other Web database developers recognized limits to FileMaker’s capabilities and chose to utilize the MySQL and PHP option. 8 The downside of this solution was that the slide librarian would not be readily able to maintain the database. We would use a UNIX server, which would be new to the slide librarian. The problem was solved by DPD’s commitment to maintain the database and use PHP to provide easy-to-use online forms for data entry.
At the second meeting of the art history and DPD, feasible funding sources were discussed and with input from the entire group, specific details were created regarding the cost and scope of a proposed project for an initial grant-writing phase.
The group decided that the most important task was digitizing as many slides as possible. While purchasing a server was thought to be necessary in the long-term, spending funding on a server at the outset would achieve little for the students and faculty and seemed like the wrong way to go. The DPD had a number of servers with adequate space to house the database, slide thumbnails, and full-size images. To accomplish the goal of digitizing slides for the core art history courses, the majority of the grant funds could go for labor to perform the scanning and image editing. A portion of the funds would go to purchase a slide scanner and new workstation for the slide library, but those costs would still allow for the bulk of the grant to go for the digitization of the slides.
This desire to keep costs low also influenced the decision to go with the third option outlined above for database conversion and Web availability. Without having to incur the cost of upgrading to FileMaker Pro 6.0 Unlimited and FileMaker Server, more of the grant allotment could go toward digitization of the images. Moving to MySQL and PHP would keep costs low, and since the DPD has had experience with this kind of solution, it could also be accomplished in a relatively short time.
After this meeting, the grant proposal was prepared and reviewed by the group. The director of DPD assisted with the budget component, the technical coordinator outlined the technical considerations, and the grant was submitted. The grant proposal was partially funded recently and implementation has begun.
Because the slide library and the DPD are not close to each other, the new slide scanning equipment was placed at the slide library. The slides cannot be removed from the slide library for significant periods of time, so doing production within the slide library makes logistical sense. The slide librarian will oversee the daily digitization of the images and the data entry. The slide librarian will be responsible for making data corrections relating to the label printing errors left over from FileMaker Pro. Since the existing FileMaker Pro slide database could easily beconverted to a comma-delimited file and be imported into MySQL, the slide librarian could maintain the File Maker Pro database for the purpose of label creation, and simply send DPD the database updates.
DPD has begun the FileMaker Pro database conversion to MySQL and the design of the subsequent relational database. Upon completion of database conversion, Web forms for data entry will be created for the slide librarian. The relational database design will be put to the test over the summer when a course test site is created. The database may need adjustment, so discussion with the art history faculty will continue. The goal for the fall semester is to have the database design completed, have online forms for selecting and adding images created, and have enough images scanned to provide online access to at least one core course with multiple sections.
While DPD previously offered brief, short-term assistance to professors when they needed documents or images digitized, this was the first opportunity to work with an entire department to develop a solution to a pedagogical challenge. It is encouraging that the Art History department recognized the skills that library personnel could offer them in the classroom. Library-faculty collaboration makes the library a more integral part of campus, facilitates communication between the library and departments, and works as a marketing tool by providing more visibility to departments. Providing access to information is the goal of DPD, so it is only logical that technical expertise is used to assist professors in the quest to offer access to digital images.
References and Notes
1. Beatrice O. Agingu and Cathi Mack Cooper, “Collaborating with Faculty through Technology: Faculty As Users and Partners,” Journal of Educational Media & Library Sciences 39, no. 1 (Sept. 2001): 1–7; Hannelore B. Rader, “A New Academic Library Model: Partnerships for Learning and Teaching,” College and Research Libraries News 62, no. 4 (Apr. 2001): 393–96.
3. For an example, see http:// lincoln.lib.niu.edu and http://dig.lib.niu. edu.
4. Maria Langer, Database Publishing with FileMaker Pro on the Web. Companion Web Site, FAQs. Accessed Dec. 12, 2002, www.marialanger.com/booksites/ fmproweb.html.
5. Andrew Weiss, Dabbling in Live Databases: MSAccess. Accessed Nov. 20, 2002, www.databasejournal.com/ features/msaccess/article.php/1408481.
8. Thomas Kehoe, “Website Basics with PHP and MySQL,” Developer Shed. Accessed Nov. 3, 2002, www.devshed. com/Server_Side/PHP/DB_Basics/ page1.html.
Tara L. Dirst (firstname.lastname@example.org), Technology Coordinator, Digital Projects, Northern Illinois University Libraries, DeKalb.