Beth Knazook is an image archivist who has worked for the Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections and as the Photo Archivist for the Stratford Festival of Canada. Her expertise is in photographic preservation and photographic collection management, and that is the subject of her introductory course for Library Juice Academy next month, “What Do I Do With All These Pictures? Getting Started With Digital Image Collections.” Beth agreed to be interviewed here to give people a better sense of what they will learn from the class and about her background as an instructor.
Beth, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. I thought I would start by asking about your background as an image curator, how you ended up in the position of teaching a class like this, and what your work experiences have been like.
I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to photographs. I was trained as a Photographic Preservation specialist and to me, that means I’m able to adjust my practices to the needs of the individual collecting institution, whether that be a library, archive, museum, corporate or private collection. I’ve spent a good part of my career in an academic library, which makes teaching for Library Juice such a nice fit. On a personal note, I’ve always had a very tactile interest in photographic books so I’ll probably run off on a bit of a tangent about digitizing from book sources and caring for photographically-illustrated publications, fair warning!
This class is a condensed version of a class I co-taught with a library colleague at Ryerson University for the MA program in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management. At the time I was the Curatorial Specialist for the Archives & Special Collections department and a graduate of the MA program myself, and I provided the project materials and supervision for their exercises in the digitization and cataloguing of special image materials. I’m fairly vocal about my opinions on cataloguing standards and it didn’t take long before my colleague just handed over a chunk of the class to me to discuss these issues! It was a really great experience and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to bring the ideas and practices we discussed to the community of library professionals. It’s very empowering to see the degree of flexibility in the act of cataloguing and in the choices we make when digitizing. I want librarians to come away from this class with the same understanding that our Photo Preservation students had: there is no right or wrong way to approach a digitization project. There is a best way, and that is particular to your collections, your organization and your goals. If librarians were to take anything away from this course, it will be the confidence of knowing that the choices they’ve made are good ones, and not to worry that the institution next door is making different choices.
Ok, hm. So what are some of the differences that can lead to different “ideal” approaches to a digitization project?
There’s quite a bit of consensus across the major collecting institutions regarding minimum digitization standards, but I feel that the word minimum is not nearly emphasized enough. While these guidelines have been carefully prepared to meet most requirements today and into the near future, are they really sufficient for your project? I hope to give librarians the tools to understand this – hence, the “ideal” way to digitize.
There are also a number of questions that will arise in the course of a digitization project that turn out to be rather insular, and they can only be answered by a critical evaluation of the materials you have in front of you, and a consideration of the expected or desired use of the images by your audience. For instance, are you digitizing original photographs, copies of original photographs, or photographs that convey a specific subject? In the case of an original photograph, your digitization practices might include making a full scan showing the border of the photograph and a ruler for scale, and perhaps even a scan of the verso for unique marks or signatures. In the case of the photograph as a carrier for a subject, information about the photographic object is no longer the most important information to convey. You might choose to crop or make perceptual colour or highlight adjustments that better show off the subject within the context of your online presentation. How you choose to catalogue these images will be influenced by these choices. Does your audience need to know the specific photographic process that produced this image or will “black and white” suffice? Do they care about the dimensions? I’m not saying that you wouldn’t record these pieces of information, but perhaps you wouldn’t present them first in your record.
We will also get into some practicalities of delivering the images to the end user, which include questions such as: Are you able to offer your digital images for reproduction in academic or commercial publications? Even if you can, do you want to? Do you want your images to be discoverable individually or do you expect your users to browse archival fonds or class-based image collections? If you said “yes to all”, how will you anticipate this in your cataloguing?
Now I’m starting to worry that we’re giving away too much of your course content for free. 🙂 But I think this does give a good sense of the kind of issues you will be covering. I’m getting curious now, too. I wonder if you can say a few words about what some of the hot issues are right now in the field of photographic digitization, curating, and control?
Copyright is always a hot topic, and since I’m living in Canada at the moment I can say that recent changes to our copyright legislation is generating a lot of nervous chatter regarding the photographer’s ownership of materials produced in the course of work done for hire. As caretakers of cultural heritage, we have a responsibility to provide access to the materials in a modern format and I think a lot of people in the field don’t fully understand what constitutes copyright compliance when it comes to digital distribution. We look to each other to reassure ourselves that our practices respect the rights of the creator and the user.
Interesting. You told me earlier that you’re going to be starting a PhD program in the Fall, at Queens University. Is that in Toronto? What will you be studying? Do you have a focus defined at this point?
Yes, I have an exciting opportunity to pursue research in the history, use and care of nineteenth century photographic books. Queen’s University is in Kingston, ON and it has an excellent art conservation program that will give me a great perspective on the topic. I look forward to picking that up in September.
Well, that’s great. I hope you’ll have the time to continue teaching for Library Juice Academy once you’re in that program, but I will understand if you’re not. Thanks for taking the time to do this interview.
I seem to gravitate towards the blogs, conferences, websites and literature spawned by the library community, so I imagine I’ll stay close to the field. My research should certainly carry some interest for librarians as I intend to look at the distribution and reception of the early photographic book, hopefully answering some valuable questions about our inherited collections. Of course, participating here is one way to keep up with the conversation!