Preserving imaged-based cultural heritage: Valuation, negation, or desertion

Panel organizer:

Andrea J. Copeland

School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University–Indianapolis


  • Joan E. Beaudoin, Assistant Professor

    Department of Library and Information Science, Wayne State University,


  • Andrea J. Copeland, Assistant Professor,

    School of Library and Information Science, Indiana University–Indianapolis


  • Chris Landbeck, Ph.D. Candidate, Florida State University


  • Steven T. Puglia, Digital Conversion Services Manager, Library of Congress Email:



The caves of Chauvet in the south of France contain some of the earliest known images created by humans in an effort to express a vision of their world –these images stand after more than 30,000 years. Reflecting on the near-miraculous preservation of these paintings inevitably leads to us to think of the responsibilities involved in caring for and maintaining cultural heritage imagery. Who is responsible for researching and preserving these images? Who should support these tasks? Does this effort fall to the French alone? Do these responsibilities carry over to the surrogate imagery that documents the original items? Shifting the discussion to imagery produced in our current world we note that Yahoo! / Flickr contains over 6 billion images from all around the world (Flickr Blog, 2011). These images too are reflections of our human experience and yet there is no provision for preserving this content. Is it right that largest image collection holder could close up shop tomorrow? In other words does Flickr just belong to Yahoo!? Would this type of collection be better suited in the hands of a memory institution, one that is committed to preservation and education? If this digital content is placed in centralized depositories, who will be responsible for making decisions about how it is managed, accessed and preserved? Without cooperation, will digital cultural heritage depositories become like refrigerators that everyone shares but no one cleans or organizes?

The purpose of this panel is to explore the how's, what's and why's of preserving image-based heritage. What is valuable: how to identify it; organize it; preserve it and make it accessible?

The panel participants will explore the following questions:

  • What is imaged-based cultural heritage?

  • What metadata is needed to preserve the contextual significance of cultural objects?

  • How can information seekers contribute to value estimation and long term accessibility?

  • What content should be preserved and who determines this?

  • What agencies should be responsible for preserving cultural heritage?

Dimensions of Context and Its Role in the Digital Preservation of Cultural Objects / Joan E. Beaudoin

Museums and other cultural heritage agencies have created digital images of cultural objects contained within their collections in order to document their holdings, educate their users and share their items with a global audience. Individual items within these agencies are decontextualized from their original cultural context through several means. First, items have typically been removed from their original context through their selection and placement within these agencies and second, their basic characteristics are modified through the digitization process. The conversion from a physical manifestation to digital one is further complicated by the fact that during the retrieval process contextualizing clues are lost.

Context is especially important in discussions of digital preservation since in most instances the digital materials have undergone this separation from their original format and context in the processes of digitization and preservation. Digital materials pose a “… risk of decontextualization–the possibility that the digital surrogate will become detached from some context that is important to understanding what it is, and will be received and understood in the absence of that context,” (Unsworth, 2004). In other words, since digital materials are typically not situated within their original context they are prone to being experienced and interpreted in ways that were unintended. While there is value in using materials in decontextualized ways, for example, as a sort of creative springboard, it is critical that the original and intended meaning and experience be preserved whenever this is possible. To aid in the digital preservation process a framework useful for recording contextual data surrounding cultural heritage materials was developed.

The framework identifies multiple dimensions of context that are needed to capture information critical to the future location, identification, access, selection, use, and understanding of cultural objects. Consisting of eight distinct dimensions, technical, utilization, physical, intangible, curatorial, authentication, authorization, and intellectual, the framework is broad enough to be applied in multiple settings. At the same time the framework encourages the kinds of discussions needed to facilitate social / cultural agreement about what contextual information is necessary to support future interactions with digitized cultural objects.

The use of personal value estimations to guide the selection of publically available digital content for preservation / Andrea J. Copeland

Considerable information is shared on the web through social networking sites, blogs and personal web pages. One begins to wonder if any of this content has value. Research has found that individuals share digital content that is valuable to them (Copeland, 2011). But is it valuable to others? To friends? To family? To society?

If so what is the value and to whom is it valuable? If it is valuable, then we are losing this content by not taking steps to collect, organize and preserve it. Who is “we”? Are memory organizations, such as libraries, archives, and museums responsible for preserving this kind of social record? Who decides which content is of significant value?

Individuals who share content on the web can help identify publicly available digital content of value and possibly worthy of preservation. Individuals have the potential to guide memory organizations in the processes of creating and organizing freely available digital images representing content of social value (Smith, 2007; Terras, 2011). Further individuals can help organizations recognize the value of this type of information. A study involving public library users and the exploration of the values they attribute to the images belonging to others on the web: friends, family, and unknown individuals to them will be discussed. This study illustrates the potential for using individual value estimations to create public library digital cultural heritage collections and to guide preservation selection decisions.

Is all culture local? It may not be possible to create universal standards for selection, appraisal, and description of images worthy of long term access? Perhaps local collections developed by local communities through public libraries will provide the best mechanism for creating relevant culturally rich image collections worthy of preservation.

Describing Political Cartoons for Preservation and Access / Chris Landbeck

Political cartoons provide a wonderful example of the types of images that need contextual metadata for meaningful long term use. The relevance of political cartoons tends to be based on a specific time and place or incident. The viewers of these cartoons must be knowledgeable of certain political, historical or geographic circumstances to clearly understand the message communicated through the medium. There is great potential for their cultural insights to be lost over time as human memory fades. Perhaps because of their deeply contextualized meaning, political cartoons should be viewed as ephemera rather than items worthy of detailed description.

To date, there has been more work done in describing and providing access to other kinds of images than there has been for editorial cartoons. While there have been piecemeal or ad hoc efforts to organize large cartoon collections, these efforts have been based on the wants and needs of the organizers, publishers, or collectors. We know little concerning the habits and expectations of users vis-à-vis editorial cartoons, and there has not been an organized, user-based approach to providing access to these kinds of images.

This research explores the description of political cartoons with an eye toward retrieval from large collections. Jörgensen's 12 Classes of image description (2003) are used to categorize cartoon descriptions in both a tagging environment and a simulated query environment. It was found that participants more often described aspects of political cartoons that are far less often described in other images under similar circumstances (Jörgensen, 1998; Hernandez-Laine & Westman, 2007; Jansen, 2007; Chen, 2000), concentrating mainly on those aspects of the images that deal with the issues surrounding the event in question, and on those aspects of the image that help to define the context in which the cartoon can be properly understood. Where other, similar studies found that the concrete components of an image were of paramount importance, this work instead found that the abstract concepts, personal reactions, and the words often included in such images were the most important things to note. Additionally the findings suggest that certain demographic variables seemed to play a role in tagging and querying for such images.

Political cartoons provide an example of images that are in part text based and often appear as part of published printed works. The contextual descriptive access to the meaning of political cartoons provided by the daily or weekly news is soon to be a thing of the past. Are the access and preservation needs of digital/digitized political cartoons different from the printed ones?

Digitization as Preservation Reformatting / Steven Puglia

Like any conversion process, digitizing physical collections in libraries, archives and museums records some characteristics of the originals well, other characteristics not so well, and some are not captured at all. This was true for traditional reformatting processes like microfilming and analog re-recording of audio and video tapes (Conway, 2010). Which characteristics or properties are required and how accurately do they need to be recorded for digitization to be suited to preservation?

Within the digital library community the emphasis for digitization in the last few years has been on getting more collections online, and less concern has been paid in ensuring the creation of the highest quality digital copies (Zorich, 2003). Which characteristics or properties of physical collections are being sacrificed and what are the implications? Traditional methods of reformatting acceptable for preservation purposes, procedures for creating legally admissible copies, and different technical guidelines for digitization of physical collections all inform the suitability and acceptability of digital copies for preservation purposes.

What role should the Library of Congress play in establishing the practices of memory organizations in preserving digital image-based cultural heritage? In the United States, there is no national library. This fact makes it difficult to establish clearly the role that local, state, and national memory organizations should play in providing for the preservation of digital cultural heritage. If the US is a nation of “one-offs,” how does this influence our ability to preserve our digital culture as well as participate in any larger global efforts?