Interview with Beth Knazook, instructor for Describing Photographs for the Online Catalog

Beth Knazook has taught a course in managing digital image collections for Library Juice Academy a couple of times, and we interviewed her about it back in March. Now she is going to teach a follow-up class titled, Describing Photographs for the Online Catalog. Beth holds an MA in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University/George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. She has previously worked as the Curatorial Specialist for Ryerson University Archives & Special Collections and as the Photo Archivist for the Stratford Festival of Canada. She agreed to do another interview with us to give people a good sense of what this new class will cover.

Beth, thanks or agreeing to do this interview. Your classes so far have gone really well. I understand you got the idea for this new one partly based on your experience with the class you’ve already been teaching. How did that happen? I’d like to hear a bit about the genesis of the class you’ll be teaching next month.

I’ve really enjoyed teaching the class on digital image collections, and you’re absolutely right, this new course came about because of my experience and the feedback I received from my students. In “What do I do with all these images? Getting Started with Digital Image Collections” we covered a lot of ground – too much ground for four weeks! The class is supposed to be accessible to new practitioners so it needs to broadly address topics like planning and setting goals, dealing with copyright, creating metadata, and implementing good digitization practices. The metadata and description topics suffered the most from a lack of attention; there just wasn’t time to build in exercises that dealt with controlled vocabularies, for instance. I threw one in at the end as a “bonus” exercise, but it wasn’t very thorough and the students were not able to devote much time to it. Dealing with the topic of description in a single course gives both classes a better pace and scope.

I understand that cataloging images presents a host of issues for catalogers. What are some of the things that people will learn in your class? Also, do you assume basic knowledge of library cataloging practices?

I think it will help if you have some knowledge in that area, but you could come to this course with no cataloguing experience and still take away a lot of valuable information. I will be focusing on how photographic image records are different than regular bibliographic or descriptive textual records, and those differences can be quite dramatic. I’m also going to diverge from the MARC standard and discuss metadata schemas that are a little more image-friendly, including VRA Core and Dublin Core. When we get to talking about controlled vocabularies, we will explore multiple specialized vocabularies like the Thesaurus for Graphic Materials or the Getty Art & Architecture thesaurus, in addition to the more familiar Library of Congress Subject Headings, and I won’t expect any of the students to have used all three before. No matter what the background, each student should be able to engage with the course materials at a level that is comfortable for them.

In general, students can expect to learn a lot about the ambiguities of photographs – the layers of photographic meaning, as it were. Photographs are accessed for all kinds of different reasons that may or may not have anything to do with the subject. Too often in item-level cataloguing systems, we only allow the cataloguer to explore what the picture is Of, instead of what it is About, what might it be an Example Of, how might it Relate to a larger work, and how has it Changed over time. For this reason, we spend some time in class learning how to identify different photographic processes and describe their deterioration, and we also spend some time on readings that will help us to understand how our catalogue records act as interpretive records, even when we might not mean them to do so!

Very interesting! That gives a sense of some of the issues that are particular to cataloging images.

I would like to take a second to note for American readers that Beth is using the Canadian spelling of “catalogue” because she is Canadian. This means that she will be participating in the class from the Canadian Time Zone 😉

Since we’ve done an interview previously, I’ve already asked you most of the questions that I normally ask, so I think this time I’ll just close by asking you to talk a little bit about your experience of teaching for Library Juice Academy.

Ah, yes, my Canadian spellings! I debated shifting to American English for Library Juice, but I figured in the course of all the typing back and forth, a rogue “u” would slip into a word here or there. It turns out that my last class was somewhat international anyway! It really broadened the course in terms of topics too, since we weren’t just talking about American standards for digitization, but using global examples.

The experience has been great, Rory. Online learning is different from that of the classroom. You can hold discussions in the classroom, but questions always arise when you walk out the door. Here, we can ask questions (even in the middle of the night!) and know that the question will be heard. You really have time to digest what the other party is saying and that provides a richer conversation. The most amazing thing is that I’m not the only one who responds as well! There are a lot of mid-career and emerging librarians taking these courses, all of whom have expertise in one area or another that they can relate to in the conversations and exercises. Their comments and feedback have really helped the courses grow.

That is good to hear. That is the way that I have been hoping our classes would go. Thanks for making it work. I look forward to our next interview when we add another class with you as the instructor.

Well, I have no plans to add another class in the near future, but interesting things come out of each new teaching experience. At any rate, I hope I’m with Library Juice for a long, long time!

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