I Remember When – Part 5

Integrating images into computerized catalog records? You’ve gotta be kidding!

Well, that’s about what I thought when the when the idea was floated and demonstrated at museum conferences in the 1970s. Yes, it was technically possible, but it was also prohibitively expensive – involving the use of videodisc platters (about 12” in diameter) that could provide access to many thousands of images, but which were costly to produce, impossible to edit, and not “playable” on any equipment that could be readily integrated with “PC” hardware and generally available database software. This, of course, was well before the time of re-writeable or even recordable CDs, when gigabytes of storage were unheard of, terabytes hadn’t even been invented, 256 Kb of RAM was pretty much standard and a 20Mb hard drive was a status symbol for a registrar or curator in any but the most affluent of institutions.

Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum
Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum

Of course, rapidly evolving technology changed that picture. Once expensive hard drive “real estate” became a very cheap commodity, and new storage media came to be both commonplace and readily affordable. The storage of digital images and their integration into catalog records became not only inexpensive but easy.

That’s the good news. The less-than good news is that one of the early objections or reservations regarding image integration into collection databases remains valid, or at least arguable. Often, I’ve found, data entry personnel are apt to neglect entering descriptive information (e.g., regarding color, shape, pattern, etc.) that is obvious with reference to an accompanying image. The trouble is, of course, that nobody (to my knowledge) has developed collection management software capable of searching records on the basis of visual characteristics. If you’re looking for objects that are red, round, rectangular and/or have a Greek key decorative motif, you’ll need to find that information by means of a text string search of the recorded alphanumeric data. You can’t ask the computer to look through your recorded images for those attributes.
I can‘t say whether that may or may not be a valid concern for your particular collection and database. It might, however, be a good reason to do a spot check of your records to see if there are artifact attributes that may be obvious on the basis of the recorded image(s) but may not have been included in the searchable alphanumeric descriptive information.