Vol. VIII, No. 1

May, 1995

Networked Information Sources in the Arts and Humanities - A New Getty Initiative

The Getty Art History Information Program has initiated a cooperative effort among several individuals and institutions that are working to construct large databases in the arts and humanities. The effort is being called Networked Information Sources in the Arts and Humanities (NISAH). Since a great deal of information relevant to one discipline may be of interest to another, and since so many of the problems encountered will be similar for those doing this work in the arts and humanities, it seems only logical to try to encourage cooperation.

To that end, several people, each representing an appropriate database project, were invited to the Getty AHIP headquarters in Santa Monica in February to discuss the possibilities. The group discussed ways to encourage cooperation between and among themselves and, in the long run, with many others as well. Ultimately, all who work with large data sets must strive to avoid duplication and to prepare their data so that they will connect to the full range of data sets already available .

Those attending the meeting were Patricia Barnett, Director, Clearinghouse on Art Documentation & Computerization (Frick Art Reference Library, New York); Mary Case, Delegate to the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and Comité International de Documentation (CIDOC) and Director, QM2 (Washington); Harrison Eiteljorg, II, Director, CSA; C. Olivia Frost, Principal Investigator, University of Michigan Art Browser (School of Information and Library Studies, Ann Arbor); Stuart Glogoff, Clearinghouse of Image Databases (Library Information Services, University of Arizona, Tucson); Richard Heseltine, Chairman, Steering Committee, Arts and Humanities Data Service (University of Hull Brynmor Jones, UK); Susan Hockey, Director, Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Rutgers and Princeton Universities, New Brunswick, NJ); Bettina J. Huber, Director of Research (Modern Language Association of America, New York); Jeremy Rees, Director, International Visual Arts Information Network (London); and Pat Young, Chief, Documentation Research (Canadian Heritage Information Network, Ottawa).

Eleanor Fink, Marilyn Schmitt, Susan Siegfried, David Bearman, Jennifer Trant, Jim Bower, and Jane Sledge attended the meetings on behalf of the Art History Information Program. Stephen Toney, a consultant, assisted as a facilitator. His role was crucial in keeping the group moving toward some concrete proposals.

All agreed that the most important problems faced are not the technical or computer-based ones. Even problems with inconsistent vocabulary are not so important as the more basic conceptual issues that arise when people begin to talk across disciplines. These include questions about the nature of the audience for a given set of material, the levels of documentation required to make material truly useful, scopes of given projects, editorial policies, version control (a very important but easily overlooked item), and so on.

Among the most interesting of these areas of concern is that called meta data - data about the data in a given archive or database. A great many factual items about the data must be known by users. For instance, how were the data gathered? Who did the work? What sources were used, and what computer processes were applied? There are many such issues that must be carefully approached, but they are matters that may not seem as important as they are when one is deeply involved in the early phases of gathering information.

As a first step toward working together, the participants agreed to connect their World Wide Web sites and to use those sites as loci for discussions of some of the issues involved.

The participants also agreed to describe their individual projects in ways that would bring out certain common information and make it easier for others to understand not only what the focus of each project is but what the problems and common concerns are.

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities, consult the Subject index.

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