When indexing a photographic collection the archivist must decide how to catalogue the relevant subject. Essentially, a human being must look at, interpret and describe the object before them so that a user may locate them within the repository. While this may seem a relatively simple task it is important to consider the challenge this imposes; when a picture is worth a thousand words which words do you choose? This post will seek to examine the difficulties that arise out of the necessary indexing and categorisation of photographs within digital repositories.
When examining photographs within an archival institution the process can be somewhat arduous or relatively simple. Photographs could be catalogued individually, each with associated keywords and descriptions in an online or analogue catalogue, sometimes both. Alternatively, a large bundle of photographs could be put under a somewhat broad title, “Irish Revolution 1916-1922” for example, and the user must examine each photograph separately to see which ones are relative and which are not. Either way the user is prompted to analyse each catalogue entry or each photograph. However, with a digital repository different criteria come into play. Researchers are prompted to enter dates and keywords associated with the image. As demonstrated by Murtha Baca the definitive labelling of a photograph is far from simple, when “pre-Colombian” is synonymous with “pre-Conquest” how does an indexer define a photograph. (Baca 10). According to Marcia Bates “ideally, the challenge for the indexer is to try to anticipate what terms people with information gaps of various descriptions might search for.” (Bates) Where this is successfully accomplished a researcher can locate a relevant image within seconds. The issue occurs when it isn’t. When users are not prompted to search line by line, to scour repository search terms the same way we do catalogues, does valuable information fall between the cracks? And if it does, does digitisation do the researcher more harm than good? The creation of an online repository establishes a certain amount of trust between user and product, if a search returns no results is it unfair to assume it was never there rather than hiding?
Another fear generated by modern technology is our decreasing ability to analyse. When the goal is information and information is provided a plenty do we care where it comes from? While photographs are open to interpretation and therefore difficult to distort there is a way in which digitisation limits their scope. The most obvious way is through formatting and presentation. As Elizabeth Edwards argues the copying, mounting, standardising and indexing of photographs in the Cambridge Project removes the photograph from its original context. Her examination of materiality reflects on the importance of this context to the meaning and interpretation of a photograph, without it, she argues, “reinforces the taxonomic readings of the images, creating a cohesive anthropological object rather than a series of images with their own semiotic energies.” (Edwards 71). Essentially, does a standardized format distort the interpretation of a photograph which was previously treasured in an ornate frame or tattered photo album? Arguably, the answer is yes. Context is not a discardable detail but a fragment of the puzzle which artefacts seek to decipher. Similarly, when a photograph is limited to certain tags do we limit its potential? If a user is informed that a photograph or artwork belongs to a certain theme do we already limit their ability to interpret as it has been done for them? Why should a user critically analyse the meaning of a photograph when the database has done it for them?
In conclusion, online repositories can provide a wealth of information in a matter of seconds. Users can obtain access to resources they may never have seen otherwise. However, what of the challenges they don’t see or the questions they don’t know to ask? How do we prevent resources from falling through the metadata cracks? Additionally, in creating this metadata how do we guide a user to a resource without impacting their interpretation before they’ve seen it?
Baca, Murtha, “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: Metadata for Art Objects and Their Visual Surrogates” http://www.columbia.edu/cu/libraries/inside/units/bibcontrol/osmc/MBaca.pdf. Web. 17 October 2016.
Bates, Marcia, “Indexing and access for Digital Libraries and the Internet: Human, Database, and Domain Factors” https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/bates/articles/indexdlib.html Web. 17 October 2016.
Edwards, Elizabeth, “Material beings: objecthood and ethnographic photographs” Visual Studies 17:1 (2002): 1-19. Web. 17 October 2016.