The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 35









List of papers








By Paul Bentley

This paper is based on bullet points presented at the Australian Visual Arts Information Forum, held at the National Library of Australia, May 2004.


What are the factors affecting information handling in today’s online world? What are the implications for those involved in managing visual arts information? What role can ARLIS/ANZ play in responding to the needs of those who use visual arts information?

Since we are at the stage of skirting through the possibilities, this paper poses questions rather than answers as a prelude to the process of sifting issues into a coherent and convincing plan.  



When we talk about improving the management of Australian visual arts information, are we talking about visual arts information or just the small proportion of information that’s in libraries? In other words, is it an Australian visual arts information project or an Australian visual arts library project?  They are completely different propositions.

Precisely what do we mean by the visual arts?  Does it include all or just some of the following: fine art, design (including industrial, product, fashion, graphic, packaging and interior design), architecture (including town planning and landscape design), applied arts relating to textiles, ceramics, metals, jewellery and furniture, media (including film, television, broadcasting and animation), theoretical, historical and philosophical studies, information management and museum practices. Are all relevant interests represented at this forum? Do others need to be considered?

How does the emerging world of the creative arts, incorporating advertising and educational or leisure software, fit into the picture?  Does the project encompass the form pictorial materials (such as sheet music covers, images of program covers, and images of museum objects) as well as the subject visual arts

Information Strata 

Future information

Annual recorded information

Post Internet information

Pre Internet, Post PC information

Other legacy information

Are there specific considerations and challenges relating to the above information strata?

According to the University of California Los Angeles’ report How Much Information 2003, 5.4 million terabytes (5 exabytes) of information are produced annually in the form of paper, film, magnetic, and optical sources. About 92% is stored on magnetic media, mostly on hard drives. Paper amounts to 0.01% of the total output. About 85% of paper information is in the form of office documents. About 18 exabytes flows through electronic channels. 

How much of this information is relevant to the visual arts? How much of it is relevant to Australia? Are we interested in all forms of material or just some types? How do answers to these questions influence decisions on scope, priorities and partnerships?

Is managing today’s digital information more important than spending money on digitising legacy material? When we talk about digitisation, do we mean creating databases, metadata, images or encoding text? Are we talking about photographs, text, manuscripts, ephemera and audiovisual material or do we have in mind a focus on some types over other types?

Does the work in the 1980s on, say, ArtsDoc, have implications for the way we handle new digital projects? Is the data still useful? Is it available? Can it be migrated?

How relevant is, say, Fairfax’s extensive card index covering Australia’s history in the 20th century? Is Fairfax still planning to digitise the index? To what extent does it cover the visual arts? If it were to go ahead, how would it affect our decisions on indexing and digitisation? Are possible public-private partnerships out of the question?

Artform differences

Do differences in artforms stimulate thoughts about requirements for managing visual arts information? Music librarians manage the primary musical object. Art librarians, in the main, don’t. This suggests that relationships with other players and systems in public and private environments may be of some importance in developing strategies for visual arts information.  

Art and art information outside libraries, archives and museums

Art and related information is located in many government agencies, businesses and private collections. It is sometimes difficult to track down art and information in their possession. They are sometimes cavalier in their approach to the art works that decorate their walls. Where does this material appear in our field of vision? 


What statistical, structural, syntax, semantic and workflow data models, sources, projects and standards are applicable in handling visual arts information?

IFLA’s Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) has been given prominence as a data model in this forum. The Getty standards and vocabularies, NISO’s Z39.87 Technical Metadata for Digital Still Images and Metadata for Images in XML, and the Visual Resources Association’s Core Categories jump off the page. .

But what about other vocabularies listed on the Taxonomy Warehouse?  Does the work of the Library of Congress’s Program for Cooperative Cataloguing Core Bibliographic Record for Audiovisual Materials Task Group and the Research Libraries Group’s REACH Element Set for Sharing Description of Museum Objects deserve cursory or serious attention?

Is there any merit in considering NISO’s Information Services and Use: Metrics and Statistics for Libraries and Information Providers: Data Dictionary as a framework for a more systematic capture of data pertaining to Australian art libraries? Do the OAI-PHM Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting and emerging standards for learning objects have relevance? What about Australian Government Locator Service (AGLS), Encoded Archival Description (EAD), Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Language (OWL)?  To what extent is the records management standard ISO 15489 applicable to the management of visual arts information resources? Is it worth taking a look at the now defunct LAUREN project on digital clipping archives? Much will depend, of course, on the scope and details of the project.


Industry needs

To what extent is it important to differentiate business, educational and cultural needs and obligations as the basis of information planning? What sources are available to help identify  requirements? 

The Australia Council’s Planning for the Future includes sections dealing with challenges, opportunities and options for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander arts, Community Cultural Development, new Media Arts and Visual Arts and Crafts. The Creative Industries Cluster Study Stage One Report, by the National Office of the Information Economy. assesses industry data, structure, geography, linkages, and content production drivers, barriers and failures. Various state ministries for the arts have produced policies and strategies for government programs. To what extent does our agenda need to match artistic, knowledge, financial, societal and infrastructure needs expressed in these sources? 

User interests

Numerous reports have been published on the special needs of information users in the arts and humanities. These include Researchers’ Use of Libraries and Information Sources, Libraries in the Information Infrastructure for the Humanities in Australia and Scholarly Work in the Humanities and the Evolving Information Environment, among others. The British Library has tabulated ways of increasing its value to particular industries, including the creative industries, in Measuring Our Value.  

Past visual arts information projects have sometimes got off the ground simply because people wanted to do them. Some have failed because insufficient attention was paid to identifying users and the strength of their interests. Since these interests will, in large part, determine strategy, in what detail do we need to categorise types of users, types of needs and likely demand? Is demand important?  

Commercial opportunities

Some recent reports give emphasis to the commercial opportunities of the educational market. Two studies funded by the Mellon Foundation explore the market realities and opportunities for digitising US art museum collections. Do we need to review these sources and their recommendations as a context for our project?


Changing information management practices

The proliferation of digital resources and the development of online habits are generating new information management laws and guidelines in government agencies and businesses. In some enterprises they are generating new structures, synergies, and systems. Indicative of this trend are the Information Management Capacity Diagnosis Tool produced by the National Archive of Canada/National Library of Canada and policies and guidelines produced the Australian Government Information Management Office and New South Wales Office of Information and Communications Technology. Recent record management audits point to a gap between theory and practice. Concerns have been expressed about the way information in non-government environments is managed and captured.

The recent OCLC 2003 Environmental Scan predicts a future in which libraries are likely to have tighter budgets and smaller workforces. It says they will continue to be bound by government and university budgeting priorities and uncertain economic conditions. The challenges, it says, will be to integrate traditional and emerging formats, balance resource allocations and build new information management processes and formats. For libraries, it is not simply a question of shifting to a new set or type of materials, but rather of building a much more complex world of published content, open Web content, institutional content and special collections. .  

Involving different types of libraries

The Museums Libraries and Archives Council in its Wider Information and Library Issues Project (WILIP) report considers issues affecting national and public libraries, higher education, further education and school libraries, corporate, research institute, voluntary sector, and cultural heritage libraries, among other types.  The report reminds us that the ‘visual art library’ is not an amorphous concept. Although there is a large area of common ground in many art libraries, there are variant issues influenced by different organisational contexts.

Involving archives and museums

The European Commission’s Digicult Report underscores the fact that today’s information projects will involve partnerships between libraries, archives and museums. This is well demonstrated in some Australian projects involving the National Library of Australia. The visual arts is one subject field which necessitates firm relationships between the three sectors. What needs to be done to develop these relationships for the visual arts information project?

Involving other stakeholders

The Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Program is one report that exhorts us to define and embrace public and private sector interests in response to the changing environment.  In a section on transforming roles, it calls for active management of files from the beginning and decisions about preservation at the time of creation—“a huge shift in the relationship between preservation and access that is little recognized and less understood”. It speculates on incentives that need to be provided to musicians, writers, choreographers, architects, photographers and others to assume the burden of preservation.  Within organisations, the need for librarians to form more effective relationships with other information creators, handlers and users of information is more pressing than ever.


In developing collaborative mechanisms for the management of visual art information, what are some of the issues and lessons on collaboration for possible application in our domain?

Types of initiatives

We’ve called for “a project” but what sort of project do we have in mind?  Should we give some scrutiny to fee-based, content-based and consortial membership arrangements? Are we looking at a research-based project with the potential for attracting research funding? Is it desirable to test the wind with a well-defined pilot, test-bed or proof-of-concept project? Are we looking at income from a single source or something to be sustained from multiple sources of income? Is it to be centred on a gateway or portal or do we need to look at a range of other outputs?  The need for directories, databases and digitisation has been assumed.  Are there other outputs that have been overlooked?  

Learning from past and present endeavours

The work of the Australian Subject Gateways Forum, PictureAustralia, Australia Dancing, MusicAustralia, AusStage and the State Library of New South Wales Jean Garling Project have all produced documented and undocumented lessons. Internationally, ADAM, Artifact and the Arts and Humanities Data Service deserve special attention.

Is there anything to learn from ARLIS/UK & Ireland’s survey of visual arts information in 1991 and Visual Arts Library and Information Plan (VALIP)? What has been the impact of their effort? Will their experience be ours? Has our initial audit adequately covered issues relating to scope, gaps, redundancy, effort, spending and priorities? Has it, for example, been too circumspect in capturing data on visual arts records and archival material?

Is there anything to be garnered from other local surveys such as Key Needs of Collecting Institutions in the Heritage Sector and the Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts’ Arts e-Commerce Survey?

Making good decisions

Have we noted concerns about the sustainability of many projects as noted in Diane Zorich’s A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns? (Council on Library and Information Resources, 2003). In evaluating projects by numerous enterprises such as the Art Libraries Society, Art Museum Image Consortium, Association of Moving Image Archives, Center for Arts and Culture, College Art Association, Consortium for the Interchange of Museum Information, Getty Research Institute, H-Net, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and Visual Resources Association, she notes muddy missions, internal tensions, increasing competition, uncertain market needs, international issues, funding problems and other difficulties. She makes a number of recommendations for marketing and training, integration and culling, and better communication between digital cultural heritage initiatives, funding agencies and their constituencies. Better business planning is a key recommendation. 

Simple and complex solutions

Projects can be either simple or complex. GE Gorman, in his writings on collaboration and digitisation, says there is more smoke than fire when it comes to collaborative digital library projects. “Information organisations cannot survive without substantive change in terms of resource sharing, not least because they are faced with increasingly robust networks and partnerships among information creators, packages, vendors and distributors. In order to compete, and to provide the best service possible, libraries and library consortia must become serious about deep resource sharing.” In Collaboration and Cooperation, he pleads for a more holistic approach to cooperation, involving interests outside libraries. But if resources and partnerships have not been assembled to match the scale of the task, the Digicult Report reminds us that projects need not be complex. There are options for matching solutions with capability and resources. 

Sources of funding

Depending on the nature of the project, funding could conceivably come from the usual suspects such as the government agencies DCITA, DEST, DIST, CCA, ARC and the Australia Council, from educational bodies such as ARIIC, and from numerous private sources such as philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors and individuals.


The Dictionary of Australian Artists Online has already emerged as a possible parent project or one where dovetailing is required. Other projects deserving some scrutiny include the Design Gateway, a pilot project by the Powerhouse Museum in partnership with UTS and Sydney University, and Queensland College of Art’s Artists of Australia Project, based on Max Germaine’s publication Artists and Galleries of Australia. 

A long list of organisations and initiatives of potential interest to ARLIS.ANZ has been compiled as a resource in preparing its business plan. These include, for example, the National Association for the Visual Arts, Australian e-Humanities Network, IAML, Museum Australia’s Art Craft Design Special Interest Group, and the Museum and Galleries Foundation’s Visual Arts Reference Committee, among many others. Content providers include RMIT, Discovery Media and Fairfax. Distributors include auction houses and commercial galleries. To what extent are all of these of potential value to the project?

Looking outside the box

We frequently draw inspiration from projects unrelated to our sphere of interest. I’ve noted useful modus operandi and systems for voluntary effort, government sponsorship, private partnerships and geographically dispersed interests in the form of the Librarian’s Internet Index, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Management Edge, and Australian Agriculture and Natural Resources Online (AANRO), among others. What’s on your sheet?


What does the visual arts information project need?

The following issues seem to be the key elements of developing a strategy for managing a national visual arts information project.

  • A broad vision. It is highly desirable that we express a broad vision rather than simply point ourselves up a familiar path. The interests of businesses, government organisations, academia and libraries need to be considered. Fruitful partnerships with a range of diverse stakeholders around a common purpose can help sustain projects whereas ones that focus on narrow sectoral interests can run into difficulties. 

  • A credible plan. We can only eat an elephant one bite at a time. In selecting the bits of a broad vision that are achievable, we need a written plan that defines the scope of the project, considers the demand for the services that are contemplated, ranks needs against available resources, one that considers such issues as information quality, significance, urgency, redundancies, gaps and efficiencies, and one that takes into account associated capabilities. Major initiatives need serious money, but much can be accomplished by clarity of purpose and will. We can ill afford to repeat past failures.

  • Institutional involvement. Real action is driven by the interests of institutions, but individuals can be important catalysts and players. The National Library of Australia is a critically important factor in making real progress.

  • An e-window. Subject gateways or portals have demonstrated their worth as important stimulants for forging relationships, mapping territories, identifying strengths and weaknesses, and generating action. Developing a project, centred on either a subject gateway or a more sophisticated portal can be either simple or complex, depending on the commitments and capacity of those involved. 

What could ARLIS/ANZ contribute?

ARLIS/ANZ was established in 1975. Its membership grew to 155 members in 1999, before dropping to 100 institutions and individuals in 2003, when it consisted of tertiary libraries and librarians (38%, including 27 university and 16 training schools), national, state and public libraries and librarians (19%, including 22 national and state library memberships), museums and galleries (19%m including 8 museum and 14 gallery memberships), and other members (12%).

The society is currently preparing a business plan to look at trends, prospects and future options at the September 2004 conference. It would be possible to advance preliminary thoughts on its performance, scope and purpose, operations and limitations, strategies and prospects, but it is desirable that we defer such assessments until more work has been done.

There are positive signs about the future. Membership bounced back in 2004 to 125 members. But its limited capability - so far as a visual art information project is concerned – is likely to   revolve around the following:

  • Information infrastructure. Members have partial control over facilities, technology, content and services in member institutions. They are often subject to the overriding interests and agendas of parent organisations. 

  • People & influence. Individual members offer a variety of experiences in the visual arts, libraries and other information services. Although institutional interests are of primary importance, knowledge networks and communities of practice can add value to projects dominated by institutional interests. Some members occupy middle management positions in organisations important to the project. They are well placed to encourage commitments by parent organisations and kindred information domains within parent organisations.

  • An organisation. ARLIS/ANZ has a presence in each state, a website, an e-list, publications and events that could serve to marshal interests and coordinate various aspects of the project. In the short term, it could (a) make VAIP one of its strategies, (b) use the next ARLIS/ANZ conference to help develop the visual arts information proposal, (c) develop working groups on particular issues (d) use its website, arlisanz-l and other information channels to help promote & coordinate the project, and (e) review its commitment level in light of ongoing developments

Further reading

For an amplification of some of the above contexts, see the author’s views expressed in the following articles, all of which are also available on the Wolanski Foundation website.

  •  Australian Culture Seeks e-Business Direction: Impressions of the OzeCulture Conference, Melbourne, June 2001 (Online Currents, September 2001)

  • Digital Resources for Research in the Humanities: the Computing Arts Conference, Sydney, September 2001. (Online Currents, December 2001)

  • Driving Australian e-Culture: the Ozeculture Conference 2002, (Online Currents, October 2002).

  • Arts Hub Australia (Online Currents, October 2003)

  • Libraries in the Online Environment, Part 1: Contexts (Online Currents, January/February 2004)

  • Libraries in the Online Environment, Part 2: Challenges (Online Currents, May 2004)

  • Leading Libraries, Archives and Museums in an Online Environment: a Senate Inquiry Postscript (Online Currents, July/August 2004) 


 About usWhat's newSite map | Searching  | Managing  | Learning  |  Library |  Research 

  Contact us | Home  

© 2004 The Wolanski Foundation Project 

 Email web manager.  URL:

Page last updated: 9 October 2004