Distinguished Service Award: Nancy Allen

ARLIS/NA Conference, Baltimore

Convocation Program Presentation, 2003


Washington. January 1975. My first ARLIS conference. I was pretty miserable at the conference, knowing no one and believing I had absolutely nothing to contribute to any professional conversation at a conference where everyone else seemed to know one another. I did not even work in an art library. Sitting alone in a long row of chairs waiting for a session to begin, someone actually sat next to me and turned with a broad smile to say, "hello". That moment I met Caroline Backlund; it marks what I consider the beginning of my career as an art librarian. Who was I? Where had I studied? What did I think of the last speaker? Anyone who knows Caroline can imagine that she engaged me in dialog about what I was learning and made me imagine, almost believe, I had something to contribute. Our world is changing dramatically, but perhaps the singular most important aspect of this organization has remained timeless: the tradition of learning, sharing, questioning, compromising and adapting to change. In 2003 one area of change, and one of our greatest challenges, is accessing information about art objects. Many museums have collections information management systems and provide web access to a portion of their collection. Fewer have rich or deep information about the collections on their internal systems, let alone on the web. And what of standards, the mainstay of shared information in the library world? Much work has been done on developing standards leaving museums staff with bewildering choices about which ones to chose. Bad enough that, most staff has precious little time to move theory to practice anyway. 

Now, lets imagine where we will be in 2025. Will data standards exist in museums? Will there be a way to share museum information across institutions? Some colleague have little optimism in this regard. Why would museums go to the extraordinary effort to standardize information when the internal use of the information has never necessitated such measures? Libraries did not create formats and controlled vocabularies to be altruistic; they did so to better manage operations. Might there be economic incentive for museums? It COULD be similar to libraries, improved efficiency of information management. Three areas of labor-intensive activity in museums occur to me as possibilities: Rights and licensing, museum loans, scholarly publications. 

First, rights and licensing: A great deal of time is spent handling forms, paper and/or electronic, for licensing works of art. Educational licensing yields little revenue for considerable the effort. If museums actually created a "union catalog" with low resolution images on the web, potential licensees could "shop" for images across museums, use shopping cart type technology, to select images, and self-identify their commercial or non commercial intentions. Museums might actually agree on a standard fee for educational use allowing the virtual licensee to compute the cost of their order, pay, and receive the high resolution files electronically. The public website would obviously become a destination for those doing picture research for publications, postcard, or pillowcases. Those users would "click through" to the rights and licensing staff at individual museums to negotiate the terms of those commercial, and more lucrative, contracts. It is quite possible to imagine that museums could save money on staff, more widely distribute images of their works for educational use, and focus on commercial licensing to better financial advantage. 

What would it take? Well first, some agreement on the standards for describing works of art on the aggregated public web site and a commitment to collaboration. If there were a union catalog of art information museum staff could use it for early "discovery" of works of art for research and exhibition planning. A set of standardized forms for requesting and approving the loan of objects from other institutions, for defining the terms of the loan, and obtaining permissions for the use of images of objects during the planning and life of the exhibition could be developed. Granted, objects are not as uniform as books. Their size, materials, fragility, weight, and value are factored into decisions about their loan. Still, the enormous benefit of standardizing any part of this activity, so central in museums, could greatly facilitate exhibition planning. 

Think IML---intermuseum loan. What would it take? Once again some standardization and a good deal of collaboration. Finally, might there be a new paradigm for museums to disseminate scholarly information? While it seldom seems possible for museum curators to upgrade information in collections management systems, merely for the sake of improving the records, every day, every week and month of the years curators and educations are writing new wall labels, creating catalog entries for print publications, creating "views" of the objects targeted to particular audiences. Today the result of that intellectual effort has one time use. Workflow in museums does not generally include getting that current scholarship and updated information into the collections management systems for re-use. Meanwhile the cost of publishing collection catalogs in print becomes more and more prohibitive. Why not develop tool kits to help museums harness the ongoing interpretive and scholarly work produced by staff, pour it back into collection management systems, and export it to a global union catalog? 

Working together, might criteria for electronic publications, collection catalogs, symposia proceedings, museum bulletins or jornals, be created, and standardized, to reduce the nearly prohibitive cost of scholarly publishing today, let alone in the future? Yes, but it will take standards and collaboration. These ideas may seem implausible but then, who among us could have imagined the world wide web in 1975? How might we in our careers be agents of such change? That brings me back to Caroline Backlund. She stayed with me during several dog days of heat and humidity in New York last August. Although now retired, she was so eager to learn about what we were doing at ARTstor. In retrospect, I realize that she was not learning something from me, she was asking the penetrating questions that I needed to consider and learn to answer as Director of Museum Relations for ARTstor, as always my mentor. This is what must endure between us in ARLIS: the trust to learn from one another and the commitment to share our expertise with those older and younger so that collectively we own the solutions. How fortunate we are tonight to be able to continue the dialog, inspired by artist Joyce Scott, the of the Baltimore Museum of Art and just perhaps a little wine.