Thursday, February 25, 2010

“Then Into the Dumpster They Go…” Really?

This is a good opportunity to build on Leigh's and Barbara's recent posts weaving into this mix the practical advice offered in a recent thread on the Visual Resources Association Listserv.

The initiator of the thread sought collective professional advice on what to do with her academic institution's instructional collection of 160,000 35mm slides. This collection which had supported an academic program and contains some original photography as well as many slides of works that are included in ARTstor and other image databases is no longer being used. The former users and their successors now find their materials online, and the space that this analog collection occupies is needed for other purposes. Our visual resources colleague wanted advice about: 1) the criteria for keeping or discarding a slide, 2) whether or not some slides should be kept on site rather than to send the entire collection into storage, and 4) on the most environmentally friendly way of disposing of discarded slides.

The advice that our colleague received to guide her weeding project was typically pragmatic:

  • Consider retaining slides that are camera originals contributed by your faculty and students. They can be scanned and added to your institutional collection.
  • Discard items that match images in existing ARTstor and other local and licensed image collections available in your institution. This may require checking to find exact replications of the images you have in 35mm format although exact matches may not be important if the overall digital coverage of an artist or area is sufficient. Some groups of images will require image by image or site by site checking while others can be eliminated more expeditiously.
  • Target sections of your slide collection for evaluation that either are or are not well represented in the digital image databases your users have access to. Check item by item—artist by artist—work by work. When you find a digital equivalent of decent quality that is identical or close enough, discard the slide.
  • Discard slides that you have already added to your institutional digital image collection.
  • Use your local digital asset management database to generate reports of existing digital holdings to identify those artists, sites, or subject areas for which you have many works and for those works for which you have many digital images. Obviously the reverse strategy might also be useful.
  • Replace slides purchased from vendors with licensed subscriptions to digital equivalents.
  • Identify groups of slides that can be quickly cataloged, scanned, and added to your institutional collection. Develop a prioritized list of works or buildings which should be digitized from slides remembering that it is more efficient to scan an image directly from a source publication than to digitize the same image from a slide.
  • Discard slides that were copied from text book sets; discard slides in teaching sets.
  • Prioritize the building of your local digital image collection to support current teaching needs.
  • Consult with the faculty who teach with material from a specific area before undergoing a mass de-accessioning. Some may want to keep these slides for their own collections; some will have important advice about what is important to save and what isn’t. They all need to understand the process.
  • Use student employees—graduate students, SLIS students, and art history students—by assigning them sections of the collection to evaluate. Lay out a group of slides on a light table to facilitate the process of discarding out of focus, pink, moldy, and duplicate slides before beginning the checking process. This process is often iterative.
  • It cost less to spend the time checking to determine whether a digital image already exists than to scan, catalog, and upload a new image file.
  • Consolidate your slide drawers to compact your remaining holdings; expansion space is no longer needed.
  • While slides are not recyclable, they are often useful to faculty and students for art projects. You may be able to give them away to faculty members or other interested individuals. They could be transformed into collectible items such your own version of the Getty’s “Art to Go Bags” ( You want to avoid the dumpster which leads to a trip to the local landfill if possible.
  • Determine whether your weeded collection should be placed in accessible storage so interested patrons of staff will have limited access to it or whether it should go into archival storage.

This brings us to Leigh’s food historian gourmand. The visual fruits of this scholar’s research into all things tasty—his classified collection of 35mm slides as well as the lectures that accompanied these images--is at risk of being lost to scholarship because of a lack of financial and administrative support to transform this corpus into an online resource. Many academic institutions currently face similar situations because those scholars of the visual who are now retiring primarily created and maintained analog slide collections. The digital collections being created by current scholars while equally valuable for preservation present a different set of preservation and descriptive issues.

It is these visual pockets of original research and contribution to visual learning and knowledge that are important to identify, save, and preserve. They play a role in defining the unique at an institution by preserving the essence of the work and personalities of eminent scholars and inspiring teachers over time. These collections contribute to the reputation of an institution by helping to define and high light those intellectual endeavors that distinguish this institution from all others. It is these collections that in digital form enrich learning within the institution and can be shared with others. This is the material that must be rescued from the dumpster to be saved and preserved.

Now comes Barbara’s part—finding the funding to make these projects possible. Her advice is sound and approaches the problem from the bottom starting locally and building upon prior experience. Committed faculty support and endorsement of these projects is a critical part of this process. Yes, funding is often available, but you must persevere to get it.

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