ALA Annual, which attracts up to 20,000 attendees and exhibitors, is the world's largest event for the library community. We are very excited to have the opportunity to meet fellow librarians and publishing professionals from across the country, as well as around the world, and to discuss our tools and resources.
As an art librarian, I was expecting to feel a little like a fish out of water at the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s (BHL) Life and Literature conference held at the Field Museum in Chicago. However, the intrinsic relationship between Art and Science was a recurring theme explored by over 120 attendees from across the globe who gathered to focus on the future of BHL.
Naturgeschichte in Bildern : mit erläuterndem Text / Von Professor Dr. Strack. Lief. 4. (Heft 33-56). Fische. Düsseldorf :Arnz & Co.,[1819-1826]biodiversitylibrary.org/item/37422
Having scanned over 35 million pages (and counting) of scientific texts documenting life on earth, BHL is transforming how scientists do research. Within these millions of pages are thousands of illustrations, which served as scientific documentation before the invention of photography. Paging through these texts, it becomes clear that Art and Science have been inseparable from the beginning, each informing the other as they developed. Serving as evidence, we find many rare botanical and zoological texts in art libraries, collected for artists and designers who look to nature for inspiration. Now artists can look to BHL in much the same way including new digital advantages such as access to more images from anywhere at anytime.
BHL is working to make these images more discoverable, especially for non-science communities. In the meantime, they have gathered thousands of illustrations at BioDivLibrary’s Photostream on Flickr. Organisms can be browsed by Kingdom such as Birds, Fish, Mammals, etc.
Now Art needs to join in this effort to help connect Art and Science in the world of digital scholarship. From an Art History perspective, I have long been jealous of Science's ability to develop advanced research tools using the latest technologies, from electronic journals to online databases. How can the Arts create similar resources, and why do they seem to trail behind?
Aside from fund raising abilities and the importance society places on different areas of study, I attributed much of this discrepancy to the unique nature of each discipline. The heavily visual and subjective nature of art can make it difficult to organize. Artwork cannot be cataloged based on how many legs it has or weather or not it grows hair. Art requires human interpretation, which is full of gray areas, which makes cataloging art difficult.
Richard Pyle’s eye-opening talk explaining the complicated world of taxonomy, in a way a non-taxonomist can understand, made me realize how Art and Science actually share similar cataloging challenges. I had mistakenly thought that life sciences had it easier when it came to organizing information because they have this great taxonomic system introduced by Linnaeus in 1735 that continues to be used by scientists today. If only art history had such a system, maybe it too could transform research by creating a resource like BHL for art. But after learning from Pyle how difficult it is to name a fish, identifying an art movement did not seem as daunting anymore!
When naming a fish, one must consider the whole history of names that came before it. As new discoveries are made, fish get named, renamed, and renamed again by different people throughout time. Trying to keep track of all these names and their histories is an enormous challenge involving several global initiatives. The Linnaean taxonomy that I was envious of quickly turned into a cataloging nightmare far worse than those caused by Library of Congress’ subject headings.
I can no longer excuse Art from the world of advanced digital scholarship because it lacks a structured taxonomy, instead, I’m feeling relieved that it does not have one and like a hurdle I thought was there has been removed!
The BHL conference made it very clear that by creating stronger connections between Art and Science through linked data and other emerging technologies we can open new doors just as scientific illustrations paved the path for new discoveries centuries ago.
The Smithsonian, along with nine other organizations, is a founding partner of the Future of Information Alliance. FIA, hosted by the University of Maryland, is described by co-director Ira Chinoy as a "thinktank without walls", interested in fostering interdisciplinary discussions of the role of information in our lives.
FIA stickers from Launch Week.
From November 14th-18th, the University of Maryland held a weeklong launch for the FIA, with five brainstorming discussion sessions. I was happy to be able to attend two of these sessions, "Visiting Future-ists" and "Creativity and Culture". Both sessions featured "future-ists" Dan Russel, director of user happiness for Google, Mary Czerwinski, from Microsoft's VIBE group, and Abdur Chowdhury, former chief scientist at Twitter. In the first session, the future-ists described their own work and the opportunities and challenges they saw in information. In the second session, the future-ists were joined by several University of Maryland faculty members to discuss the role that creativity could play in innovation and information. Other sessions over the week were "Transparency and Boundaries" and "Science in Our Lives".
Dan Russell, Mary Czerwinski, Abdur Chowdhury. Photo by Evan Golub.
Both of the sessions that I attended included lively discussion. In the "Visiting Future-ists" meeting, Dan Russell noted that only 10% of English-speaking web users were aware of the Ctrl+F feature used to search a document or web page. This worried many people in the audience. When someone asked the panel how to bridge a tech divide like this, Mary Czerwinski posited that the problem isn't teaching people, the problem is that Ctrl + F is a poor user interface and isn't intuitive. Another interesting quote came from Abdur Chowdhury, when an audience member asked what one should do if he or she realizes the academic institution wasn't a good fit for him or her. Chowdhury responded, "It's called a 'library'".
Besides creating interesting discussion on the future of information, FIA hopes to announce a seed grant program in the next few months. Winning projects will be characterized by an interdisciplinary approach to solving real information problems. I look forward to seeing what these innovative projects may be!
Last month the Smithsonian Libraries hosted the fall meeting of the Washington DC, Maryland & Virginia Chapter of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA). Close to 30 art and architecture librarians from the region came for a day of learning about some of the initiatives spearheaded by the libraries balanced with an exhibition and library tour at the Freer/Sackler.
Erin Rushing, the Digital Images Librarian and Social Media Co-Chair for SIL gave a presentation about the Libraries’ social media initiatives. Recently a working group was organized in order to coordinate SIL’s outreach through social media. Social media gives SIL the opportunity to connect directly with SIL’s users, fans, and friends, as well as to connect with each other while allowing staff and users to easily and quickly share information, generate ideas, and participate in discussions. With initial focus on the blog, Facebook, and Twitter, strategies and goals for each platform are being developed adapting what works best. Since this group effort is still new and evaluation is still being developed, the group is just beginning to discover what works best and what our users like and respond to. Ultimately the Libraries hopes to promote engagement and to increase the tools that we can serve its users.
In the afternoon, the group was met by Kathryn Phillips and Yue Shu, two librarians from the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Library. Kathryn gave a tour and history of the library with emphasis on Freer’s dedication to and continuous support of libraries and books. Shu provided a look at a variety of Chinese books books related to the Qing dynasty in China that reflected a tour by the museum archivist of the exhibition Power|Play: China's Empress Dowager. Kathryn and Shu also talked about their interests and how they came to work in the library.
In all the day provided the opportunity to meet with colleagues, share ideas and programs, and to think about the future in art librarianship.