It is Time to Embrace the Present: Guest Post by Deborah Kempe

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
― Samuel Taylor ColeridgeThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner


Colleagues, do you not share this sensation when it comes to navigating the ocean that is the web? When 57,865 returns in a Google search do not cut it for research purposes, where does one turn? When an important url is suddenly no longer findable, what does one do?  Unfortunately, the traditionally safe harbor of libraries and archives as a trustworthy repository of reliable information is no longer quite so secure a destination. At the same time, the traditionally held concept of what libraries and archives should be is undergoing radical reinterpretation.


It was amid this shifting landscape that the libraries of the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) undertook a series of programmatic inquiries into the state of the web for research in art history.  Those explorations led to a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, awarded to NYARC in October, for a two-year program in support of preserving born digital resources for art research.

The emerging fields of web archiving and digital humanities are relatively new ones. Given that the field of art history and the art business community continue to produce steady streams of relevant print publications, the adoption of a contiguous program to select, capture, describe and preserve born digital resources will be a major disruption of traditional library practices.  Arriving at this point has been a delicate calculation of structured investigation and righteous determination that admittedly can be a bit uncomfortable.


It is time to embrace the present, let alone the future. The digital world is here to stay and constantly changing.  We have to not only embrace it but help to shape it.”

These words, expressed just over a year ago by James Cuno, the President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in a much re-circulated blog posting entitled How Art History is Failing at the Internet, capture the attitude that drove us forward into territory that challenged our comfort levels.  But the journey was a series of determined steps.  A bit of background…..

A presentation in 2010 by Kristine Hanna of the Internet Archive at an ARLIS/NY meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was the first introduction for many of us to a new software service, called Archive-It, which could be used to curate and capture historical instances of websites.  Unlike the digital deluge that many disciplines were experiencing, the realm of art history was only beginning to produce a noticeable quantity of websites and digital publications with value for research.  With the onset of the “Great Recession,” the economic crisis that was all-too-real at the time but now feels like a chimera, many galleries, art dealers, auctioneers, and small museums made a sudden shift to digital publications.  The move from print to digital publishing, once driven by cost savings, led to a preference for digital as the platform of choice for many reasons beyond those of economy.

After the ARLIS/NY meeting, staff from the Frick Art Reference Library approached Archive-It to discuss the possibility of undertaking pilot projects to investigate archiving websites of auction houses and to capture and preserve links to digital information in the Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America.  Archive-It generously facilitated these landmark projects, which allowed us to learn firsthand the challenges and promises of archiving highly visual collections on the web.

Eager to make further progress, NYARC approached the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with a proposal to take our study to the next level.  By this time, national libraries and large universities were creating discipline or event-based web archives, but our research uncovered very little web archiving activity by special libraries. Although we continued to receive a steady flow of print publications, the number of digital publications was clearly increasing, and in many cases we were not collecting, describing, and preserving them for the long term as we did for printed documents. The clock was ticking, and we began to understand the threat of a digital black hole in our collections.  Large libraries had never collected the sort of so-called “ephemeral” resources such as auction, dealer, and small exhibition catalogs, and they were not going to do it for dynamic digital versions, either.  NYARC made the case of special needs for libraries whose chief missions are to serve art specialists.


That the web has become the dominant channel for information-seeking in the 21st culture is a given, yet much of its digital content is fragile and ephemeral. The question for NYARC was no longer “Why archive the web,” but “How to archive the web,” “Who should archive the web,” and “How will users navigate web archives?”  The Mellon Foundation responded with support for “Reframing Collections for a Digital Age: A Preparatory Study for Collecting and Preserving Web-Based Art Research Materials”.  The one-year grant allowed us to bring in experts to assess the digital landscape of art information. The reports that followed allowed NYARC to envision a road map for creating a sustainable program of specialized web archiving.

“Go small, go simple, go now”
― Larry PardeyCruising in “Seraffyn”

While nothing about the web is simple, an incremental approach to problem-solving is effective.  Essentially, that is what our consultants advised.


With the recent award of our two-year implementation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, NYARC is now in the beginning stages of building a program that will integrate web archiving into our core activity of building high-quality collections for use by art researchers and museum staff far beyond our reading rooms.  By calling our proposal Making the Black Hole Gray, we acknowledge the futility of fully closing the digital black hole, and that it will not be possible to capture every born-digital resource that we might wish to.  Instead, we will prioritize the harvest of digital resources that correspond to our traditional collection strengths, with the expectation that others will join a historical pattern of collaborative resource sharing to enable the creation of a lasting digital corpus that will invigorate the work of librarians, archivists, scholars, technologists, and the public in ways we have only begun to imagine.  Let the voyage continue.


–Deborah Kempe, Chief, Collections Management & Access, Frick Art Reference Library of The Frick Collection (a member of the New York Art Resources Consortium), 12/6/2013


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