Reframing Art Resources for the Digital Age: An Interview with Stephen Bury & Lily Pregill of the New York Art Resources Consortium

The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council, National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group co-chair and a former Fellow in the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Lily Pregill, Coordinator and Systems Manager for the New York Art Resources Consortium

In this installment of our ongoing interview series with new members of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, I am excited to talk with Dr. Stephen Bury, Director of the Frick Art Reference Library and Lily Pregill, Coordinator and Systems Manager for the New York Art Resources Consortium. The New York Art Resources Consortium consists of the research libraries of The Frick Collection, The Brooklyn Museum and The Museum of Modern Art.

Jefferson: First off, for those readers not familiar with NYARC, can you describe how it came about, how the three institutions work together and the types of projects and initiatives it undertakes.

Stephen: Although there had been earlier informal cooperation between New York art libraries, in 2004  the libraries of Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Frick Art Reference Library were awarded a planning grant by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which enabled them to hire a consultant, Jim Neal, to survey the landscape and make recommendations on resource sharing. A second grant in 2006 enabled the implementation of a shared catalog, Arcade in 2007: this did not include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which formally withdrew from NYARC in 2011. NYARC has been involved in a range of projects from digitization (e.g. the Gilded Age projects to a study of web-archiving for born-digital art materials. It is also in the midst of a Shared Print project for art serials.

Jefferson: We talk a lot about the need for collaboration in digital stewardship and ways to share infrastructure, resources and expertise. Tell us how NYARC has helped further the mission of each member institution and the overall art library community and what challenges and successes it has encountered along the way.

Dr. Stephen Bury, Director of the Frick Art Reference Library

Stephen: Collaboration has become the watchword for NYARC. It allows NYARC partners to punch above their individual weight and access technology and innovation which they would otherwise be unable to afford. We therefore give our member institutions much better access to a collective resource of 1 million items in a cost-effective manner. NYARC has pioneered many approaches which it has shared with the art library community locally, nationally and internationally.

Lily:  In terms of challenges, working as a larger group requires well-defined communication lines and consensus building, which can take more time than if working as a solo institution.  But I would add that the major benefits we’ve seen from our collaboration, and all of that communicating, is a pool of shared expertise, harmonized procedures and the cross-pollination of ideas that flows among our staff members.

Jefferson: How has digital content, both content created, but also scholarly uses of digital content, impacted art libraries as they work to support and engage with users and researchers? What opportunities do you see for digital content to enable museum-based libraries and archives to support preservation, access and research?

Stephen: The literature of art history has been slower to shift to the digital than the sciences, social sciences and many humanities disciplines such as classics or archaeology. This has been primarily because of intellectual property issues in images. Nonetheless, an increasing amount of electronic reference resources, full-text electronic journals and digitized materials are available. NYARC has implemented access to its own digitized content and to those items digitized in Google Books through Arcade, but it is necessary now to introduce a discovery layer interface to give deep access to our purchased electronic resources and to the websites we have started to harvest.

Our overall goal is to create a critical mass of digitized and born digital content that can be exploited through digital technologies – visualization, proximity searching, linked data  etc. – that will drive a new art history. At the same time we have to give access to physical materials where the analog has aura, such as artists’ books or little magazines; and one of the paradoxes of digitization is that it does drive some additional traffic to the original object. Straddling the worlds of manuscript, print and digital poses dilemmas for the allocation of scarce resources, especially when it comes to preservation.

NYARC has also been very keen to reach a wider audience – from the inclusion of name-rich metadata for the Frick’s photoarchive – of interest to genealogists – to the use of social media such as MoMA Library’s Tumblr or HistoryPin.

Jefferson: The art world, perhaps more than other cultural heritage institutions, straddles both the commercial and the non-profit sector. As art scholarship is often dependent on materials created by for-profit entities like dealers, auction houses and galleries, how does that impact the abilities of art libraries to accomplish their goals?

Stephen: NYARC built its unique print collections with the help of auction houses, dealers and galleries, who recognized our value as trusted repositories. But in the digital world the commercial imperative can mean that archiving their own electronic sales catalogs is not a priority for many auction houses and it can be difficult to get permissions to harvest their sites as the for-profit institutions may want to exploit these assets commercially in future. Likewise, lacking money to digitize, we have had to enter agreements with publishers to digitize specialist content, which will be embargoed from free public online access for an agreed period. This is not ideal but necessary.

Jefferson: NYARC recently released the report “Reframing Collections for a Digital Age” that looks at some of the challenges around the transition to born-digital and web-delivered art history and art market materials. Can you give us some background on what drove the project?

Stephen: The motivation for the project came from our fear of a digital black hole in the very specialist art history resources we had collected in the print environment. It was a planning or scoping grant so we could hire consultants to explore the ‘tipping point’ from print to digital, review the web-archiving landscape and the changes we would need to make in our staffing and workflows to enable us to implement a web archiving program. We were convinced of a need to web archive these materials beforehand but we had to go through a process of due diligence to see what could be done and how.

Jefferson: The report details a number of recommendation for moving forward, including better Archive-It integration with ILSs, collaborative standardization of cataloging guidelines for web-based art documentation, and new automated discovery tools. Can you tell us more about those and any other outcomes from the report. Were there any unexpected findings?

Stephen: The reports are available on the NYARC website  and the recommendations were far reaching – including that we should join the NDSA. Archive-It was the preferred solution but we were persuaded that we should supplement it with a commercial service which was able to harvest more technically-challenging websites. We were also convinced that we should have our own route back to the data other than just relying on Archive-It, so we will be using Duracloud too. One of the assumptions we had made was that we would be able to redeploy staffing from the print to the electronic environment but it soon became apparent that this would take more time than we had envisaged.

Lily: I think the workflow issues surrounding selection, permissions gathering, metadata creation and uniting discovery of web archive collections along with analog content present real challenges to scale a web archiving program. I’m encouraged by Archive-It’s Release 4.8 enhancements that allow for importing seed and document level metadata and outputting seed-level metadata via OAI-PMH. Repurposing metadata and allowing it to flow between systems (WorldCat,  the local ILS, discovery layers and Archive-It) is necessary to eliminate duplicate entry. It’s one of our goals to foster conversations between our vendors to encourage this type of interoperability and system development where it’s needed.

Jefferson: Any other exciting NYARC projects or initiatives that are worth detailing for readers interested in digital stewardship in the museum and art library world?

Stephen: Having viewed the e-book market from afar, NYARC has decided that there is now sufficient critical mass to go forward: the Frick will be pioneering for NYARC a patron driven e-books acquisition partnership.

The Frick is also leading an international initiative to digitize and make available as linked data 31.5 million reproductions of works of art and related metadata. A technical sub-group is currently working on specifications.

Lily: Speaking of linked data, NYARC is also collectively working with METRO, NYPL and NYU on a local linked data project focusing on New York City history. And, as an outgrowth of a partnership with Pratt Institute’s School of Information and Library Science and The Brooklyn Museum, NYARC is hosting graduate interns to help train next generation art and museum librarians. The consortium is providing experience in collection assessment, copyright, digitization and web archiving.

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