Review of “Digital Images Workshop” A NERCOMP event (4/24/06)

by Valerie Gillispie, Wesleyan University

Schedule and biographies of the speakers

This event brought together faculty, information technology specialists, librarians, and others who work with images to discuss the impact of digital images on the liberal arts curriculum. A number of questions were addressed throughout the day: How do faculty work with digital images versus analog images? What skills do students need to successfully interpret images? How can those responsible for digital image management assist faculty and students in their work with images?

The conference was inspired by David Green’s recent survey and interviews with 35 institutions about their use of digital images. Green’s presentation about his work was the first session of the day.

Session I: “The Use of Digital Images in Teaching Today”
Speaker: David Green, Principal of Knowledge Culture

David Green’s Handout

David Green was brought in as a consultant by the Center for Educational Technology to study the use of digital images. This project was supported by the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education and Wesleyan University. Green explained that his first step was to conduct a literature review of the field to see what had already been determined. Penn State had conducted its own survey, Berkeley had conducted a research project, and RLG had looked at how visual resources in databases had been discovered and used. The studies indicated significant problems related to personal collections and their management, including a lack of metadata associated with personal collections. They also found that faculty often had trouble finding and successfully using technology related to digital images. In addition, there was confusion over copyright issues. Green suggested Christine Borgman’s paper “Personal Digital Libraries: Creating Individual Spaces for Innovation” as a useful summary of these issues.

Following the literature review, Green and his primary contacts at each school encouraged faculty to complete an online survey about the use of digital images in teaching. The 404 responses from faculty, each of whom had taught at least one course with digital images, offered new insight into the ways images were used. Most faculty used images from their own collections, with a smaller number using publicly-accessible online databases, and a smaller number still drawing images from licensed databases. Some faculty had complaints about the difficulty or time needed to set up digital images for their teaching, but they appreciated the volume, creativity, and ease of change allowed by digital images. Additionally, faculty felt that students liked the accessibility and convenience of digital images.

Some faculty did find analog images to be superior in quality and reliability. However, in response to a question about what the advantages of analog images are, 35% of respondents either offered no answer, or wrote that there were no advantages.

In using digital images, faculty liked being able to create their own sequences, to create their own images, and to allow students to review the presentations. Capabilities like altering images and zooming in on them were rated to be less important.

Has teaching changed with digital images? Three-quarters of the survey respondents thought it had. Changes mentioned included greater efficiency, more variety, and new skills required of and used by students. Perhaps surprisingly, 60% of faculty were satisfied with their current display system, of which PowerPoint was most popular. One feature mentioned as “desirable” was the ease of bringing word and image together, which is relatively simple in PowerPoint. Some respondents mentioned their irritation at confusing, elaborate options in some display systems. Simplicity is key, and it was simplicity that was mentioned most often when asked what tools faculty would like in their presentation software, along with better integration of multiple media.

Where do faculty get support for their use of digital images? From a wide variety of sources, it seems. The majority of faculty said assistance in digitizing, finding, and managing images was important, but many did not get support or were dissatisfied with the support they did get. Learning how to use new technology is time-consuming, and faculty feel overwhelmed by the time commitment and lack of institutional support for using digital images.

Following the online survey, Green visited each school and conducted a total of 326 in-person interviews with faculty, staff, information technology specialists, visual resource specialists, and others. Here are a few of the major conclusions drawn from the interviews:

  • Licensed databases must be interoperable.
  • Students need to be trained to “read” digital images.
  • Faculty need to be trained to use digital images in their teaching.
  • A strong digital infrastructure must be in place to support personal collections and presentations.

The full report on Green’s findings will be posted soon on Academic Commons. Green will be presenting his findings at Wesleyan University and other interested participating schools.

Session II: “Digital Image Resource Development”
Speakers: John Saylor, Director of Collection Development for the National Science Digital Library
Susan Chun, General Manager for Collections Information Planning, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Patrick McGlamery, Director, Library Information Technology Services, University of Connecticut Libraries

John Saylor spoke about how the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) is using Open Archives Initiative (OAI) metadata harvesting to gather metadata for a wide range of images that are then centralized through the NSDL website. This endeavor is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Undergraduate Education, and advised by a Core Integration Team made up of UCAR, Cornell, and Columbia.

The NSF also has provided grants in the NSDL program in three different areas: pathways, services, and targeted research. These grants have helped create over 100 unique collections of resources that can be accessed through the NSDL. The most important grant area related to digital image collections is the Pathways grant, which gives the grantee responsibility to select and make available resources for particular subject areas. These $5 million, multi-year grants are intended to help the grantees eventually become self-sufficient in their mission.

One of the major advantages of NSDL is that it offers a single, peer-reviewed, appropriate to find many resources about a given topic. Researchers can benefit by including their images and research in the pathways and connecting with those working in similar areas. The gathering of these many collections has been made possible through the OAI Protocol for Metadata Harvesting. More information can be found at A union catalog is being created through this initiative.

Next, Susan Chun spoke on the topic, “Getting It Right: How well can image suppliers determine and meet the image requirements of college and university users?”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art does not have a strategic plan for assisting college and university users with digital images. However, in re-evaluating their cataloging practices and assessing their demand for high resolution images, the Museum began to think about practical changes that would benefit both users and the Museum.

The Met wanted to have a better system of digital asset management than unsecured CDs; they use digital images to both create a better inventory and meet demand for image requests more quickly. By choosing to focus on the most frequently requested or canonical images, the Met streamlined its practices and created digital versions of its analog images. These canonical images may be meeting the needs of the academic community, but the museum is not sure exactly what these needs are.

The progress of digitizing analog images (usually transparencies) is very slow, because of the high resolution of each image, as well as the cropping, spotting, and color balancing that is important for the museum’s inventory needs.

The Met has also tested social tagging—folksonomies—to generate keywords used to describe individual works. Thirty volunteers added their own terms to the objects, and upon review, 88% of the terms had not been previously found in museum descriptions. 77% of the terms were judged to be valid by staff. The implication of these terms is that they describe the work from a non-specialist viewpoint, and may provide access to people who use non-specialist vocabularies. Open source tools for collecting community terms can be found at

The Met is also grappling with how to provide access to images. The museum has charged licensing fees since 1871, and although they sometimes waive or reduce fees, the practice is inconsistent. It is also time-consuming to have individual users approach the museum each time they need something. To facilitate making these images available free of charge, the Met has teamed up with ARTStor to distribute high resolution images. Using a scholars’ license, it grants permission for approved uses without requiring individual approval.

The third speaker was Patrick McGlamery, whose talk was entitled “Maps, GIS, and Spatial Data: How are maps, aerial photography and geospatial imagery affecting scholarly research?”

McGlamery spoke about maps as not only a picture, but data. One expert has described maps as no longer static, but instead a “dynamic, structured dataset that can be accessed and queried through a Geographic Information System.” Because maps are mathematical, they work well in the digital environment. Multiple maps can be overlaid because there is spatial information indicated by x/y points. Even aerial photographs can be used in conjunction with maps. GIS software makes this spatial data possible.

The Map and Geographic Information Center at the University of Connecticut does not have a lot of historical maps in its collection, but it has created a digital collection of maps at other institutions. The general policy has been to scan maps to a resolution where information is transferable, i.e. where all text or drawings are recognizable. As maps have gotten more detailed over time, this level of resolution has changed.

Historical maps can be used in conjunction with GIS data and aerial photography to learn about changes over time. Faculty use maps and enhance them in their teaching. Landscapers and ecological engineers also use these maps to see how historical information aligns with modern maps. Information is displayed in ARCview, a powerful viewer which state institutions have a license to use.

Using historical aerial photography can be complicated, since there is not much metadata attached to photographs. The University of Connecticut uses ARCview to capture metadata about a photograph’s geographic area. A user can then type in an address and discover which aerial photographs cover that particular area.

Users seem to use large images directly on the UConn server rather than downloading. Some users are also using statistical data to overlay the maps and express other types of information. Maps as images—and data—are dynamic, and can be processed in multiple ways.

Session III: Creating and Managing Digital Institutional Image Collections
Speakers: Mary Litch, Instructional Technology Specialist, Yale University
Elisa Lanzi, Director, Imaging Center, Smith College Department of Art

The first speaker, Mary Litch, spoke about her work in the Instructional Technology Group at Yale University in a talk called “Supporting Faculty in Developing and Deploying Personal Digital Image Collections (PDICs).” The Instructional Technology Group assists faculty in the arts, sciences, and medical school in using instructional technology. This is separate from the library and institutional digital image collections, and primarily works with the personal collections belonging to faculty.

These personal collections range from a few hundred images to over 20,000. The sources of such personal collections are multiple, and the approach to controlling the data varies as well. For those faculty who specialize in art history, the institutional collections are important sources, but for other faculty, personal photography, personal scanning, and images from the web are the major sources.

Yale provides institutional support for PDICs through its digital asset management software, Portfolio, and through special grants and provisions made to help faculty get bulk scanning of their images and slides. Storage is also provided free of charge. Portfolio allows faculty to associate images and data, and can be housed on a server or locally. It supports a wide number of file types and automatically indexes text. Importantly, it allows bulk import and export for ease of use. It also has a virtual light table, which helps faculty used to working with slides feel comfortable.

A major reason faculty develop PDICs is that the institutional collections are not adequate for non-art history scholars. Faculty also like the portability, custom cataloging, image quality, and search interface of their PDICs. The Portfolio system allows them to add data immediately upon scanning or photographing items.

The drawbacks to PDICs are that they are labor intensive and difficult to support. The development of personal collections may draw some energy away from the development of institutional collections. There are also problems in blending quirky personal cataloging preferences into the cataloging of institutional collections, when a faculty member wants to share their collections. There can also be tricky legal issues related to use and reproduction in institutional collections.

The second speaker, Elisa Lanzi, Director of the Smith College Imaging Center, gave a talk entitled “Gather Ye Images: Negotiating Multiple Collections for Teaching.”

Smith College was an early innovator in teaching with digital images. The current challenges faced at Smith are similar to some of those at Yale, such as the use of multiple sources for teaching images. Smith also has noted that a holistic “Image package” strategy is required or desired by faculty. These elements include classroom presentation, student study, management, repository/storage, collaboration/sharing, and interoperability. Other factors include the need for multimedia, discussion forums, and the convergence of analog and digital collections in this transition period.

Smith offers several ways of assisting faculty with image teaching, including their Imaging Center & Visual Communication Resource Center , the “Find Images” page on the art library’s web site, and the Teaching & Learning Support web site, created by the Educational Technology Services department.

Through their use of the Luna Insight presentation tool, Smith offers a virtual “new images shelf” and also has acquired some complimentary shared collections from other Luna users. There also is an image vendor online wish list that faculty use so that the imaging staff can negotiate what can be ordered through various budgets. The Imaging Center is partnering with the Library’s collection development team to license the larger image library subscriptions.

Personal collections are created by faculty using Luna but also through independent systems. Some personal collections are then shared with the institutional collection, but Lanzi notes that this raises quality issues. For example, how can image quality and metadata standards be implemented in personal collections? The content of these personal and institutional collections needs to be accessible and portable. There is a need for strategic planning, but also a realization that there are certain unknowns in these practices.

The recently-released Horizon Report points to trends and provides examples of faculty/student needs for integrated media in teaching and learning. At Smith, students have become more involved in collection building and creating presentations. The popularity of “social tagging” in tools like “Flickr” will have an impact on digital image cataloging. However, differences in metadata can impede access and veracity. Who is the expert, and who should provide the metadata? Faculty note that students need to go beyond looking and become more visually literate to successfully use images in creating arguments. There also are issues around intellectual property that may discourage faculty from sharing their materials. Overall, however, the experience with digital images at Smith has been a positive one, enhancing both teaching and learning.

Session IV: Critical Literacies
Speakers: Christopher Watts, Director, Newell Center for Arts Technology, St. Lawrence University
Flip Phillips, Associate Professor, Psychology & Neuroscience, Skidmore College
John Knecht, Professor of Art & Art History and Film & Media Studies, Colgate University

Christopher Watts spoke on the topic “Critical Literacies: thinking strategically.” He noted that literacy means being able to read and write, and in terms of visual literacy, students both produce and participate in media. It is a mistake to think that students only receive media. In participating in digital media, students are engaging in a rhetorical or communicative act, and need to be sensitive to the audience. Watts mentioned Wayne Booth’s book The Rhetoric of Rhetoric as informative on this subject.

At St. Lawrence University, students use digital media to both “know” the world and create knowledge. In this way, digital images are used to demonstrate what has been learned, and they are also used to learn, period. Two different groups at St. Lawrence discuss these issues: the Critical Literacies Group and the Rhetoric and Communication Group. They have somewhat overlapping memberships.

The Critical Literacies Group is comprised of directors of campus programs and is presided over by the Dean of Academic Affairs. This “top-down” group focuses on operational aspects of developing literacy. It is currently working to expand the role of the Writing Center to better address speaking, images, research, and technology. The Rhetoric and Communication Group is a “bottom-up” group made up of faculty. The focus is on pedagogical innovation. They are currently developing an aims and objectives statement for faculty related to critical literacies, as well as providing training and support for faculty. The formation of and communication between these two groups has resulted in much better overall communication between the various units of academic affairs.

A couple of shortcomings have been discovered. One is a reluctance to address the role of ethics in relation to literacy. For example, analyzing rhetoric requires consideration of what has been selected and presented, and what has been marginalized. A second shortcoming is the need for more participation from the sciences. Both groups are working from their own perspectives to address these shortcomings.

Through the work of these two groups, the university has been able to move strategically to begin addressing the complex issues of critical literacies in liberal education.

The second speaker, Flip Phillips, gave a talk entitled “Visual Story Telling, Grammar, Cognitive Aesthetics and ‘Design.'”

Phillips has had experience working with digital images in both an art and science environment. Using his experience working as an animator at Pixar, he has brought the concept of story boards to the students work in his lab at Skidmore College. Through the story boards, they describe their experiments in pictures.

In animation, story boards have several phases. The preliminary boards give a basic outline in four images. Sequence boards are a series of pictures which make sense along with a human explanation. The goody board contains leftover images not used in the sequence board.

In the science environment, students use a sequence board to prepare for presentations about research. Using a white board or sketching out the images, students create a dynamic space to move around the different boards. The final story reel often makes use of digital images of the original drawings. Using few words, the student is required to make a “pitch” to his or her professor using the story boards and explaining the proposal. Using images communicates information quickly, and helps explain science in a non-textual way. The storyboard approach can be used for non-visual scientific research as a conceptual technique for organizing information.

Seeing items helps to do pattern analyzing, so the visual aspect of this approach is important. There is nothing available digitally that is quite the same as being able to move around analog images physically, but it can come close. Using tools like i-view media, Keynote, and Aperture, students can work digitally on their story boards the way they can with analog images. The benefit of this storyboard approach is that it helps them focus on their ideas, prepare presentations, and design posters. It also helps them develop their argument and write papers, using the images to drive the structure.

Flip Phillips’ website can be found at

The third speaker was John Knecht, who spoke about “The Threat of Media Illiteracy.”

Media images surround us in all aspects of our lives. Knecht asked, “How do we know what we know? How do we receive information?” This question extends to our role as citizens and our political understanding. Using a series of visual images, Knecht discussed some of the issues facing us as citizens and scholars.

The issue of media literacy is interdisciplinary, and our media resources—TV, computer, and newspaper—are as legitimate an area of study as any other. We make decisions based on the images we see—but what is the context or content of these images? Students need to know how to take in media images, as they negotiate social relationships and meanings through these images.

At Colgate University, a film and media studies minor was established three years ago. Knecht would like to develop a media analysis class required of all students to create media literacy. This literacy is key to understanding relationships of power.

Knecht showed a 19th century photograph called “Fading Away” by H.R. Robinson. He shows this image to his classes and asks students to describe what is happening. In reality, however, the photograph is made up from five different negatives, so there is no real event captured in the image.

With modern images, there is a belief in the objectivity of mechanical images. Knecht used an example of a grainy cell phone photograph from the London subway bombing of 2005. It has the pretense of authenticity because you can see the mechanical components. The same effect might be observed in the digital reports from war correspondents.

Knecht used a variety of other images to describe the way that semiotics—signs—can be “read” in photographs. Signifiers are components of images, and what is signified is what is culturally determined. Using an advertisement of Dan Rather, Knecht pointed out that his casual seated position with his feet up has a culturally determined meaning. The signifier is his feet on the desk; the signified is the impression of a relaxed and honest person. Putting the signifier and the signified together creates a complete sign, one that we use to make judgments.

Related to signs are ideologies, which originate in systems of power in all cultures. It is easier to recognize ideologies in cultures other than our own.

Many systems of analysis can be used to deconstruct images and understand their content and contexts. It is important that students be able to take apart what they are seeing, hearing and reading, and question the source. The interpretation of the media world needs to be part of the national education plan to develop media literacy in students.


This one-day conference offered a way for those of us who work and teach with digital images to share our insights and challenges. It seems clear that digital images are becoming a standard component of curricula, and the ability to interpret and critically analyze these images is becoming a required skill for students and faculty.

A major challenge is finding technology that can meet the requirements of faculty and students. The ideal system is at once sophisticated and dynamic but also intuitive and familiar. Features such as locally determined metadata for individual collections are also desired, but pose problems when multiple individual collections are combined. Institutions are trying to provide support for both institutional and personal collections, but according to David Green’s survey, many faculty members are dissatisfied with the support they get for acquiring and cataloging images. This may be related to the difficulty of providing support for such a rapidly expanding pedagogical tool.

Overall, the conference provided a wealth of ideas about how visual resources can and are being used. There were no clear-cut answers for how to handle the technological or educational issues related to digital images, but many approaches to be considered. This meeting was the beginning of a dialogue about an exciting and evolving educational tool.