Minding the Gap for Online Book Illustrations

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Illustrations play a pivotal role in the culture of the book, which is shifting with the mass digitization of images and entire books in our digital age. For those who study and teach with book illustrations from the Renaissance to the early twenty-century, browsing for this type of visual primary source presents contextual difficulties. Problems range from the misattribution of illustrations to the inability to use the images altogether.

However widely used by humanities scholars, Google Images may not be the optimal system for contextual image browsing. A Google search for images by a particular illustrator of English literature, Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) for example, indicates how his illustrations have transformed from their material context in books to their online de-contextualization. A variety of contextual details tend to disappear, namely: the pictures’ places within the codex, the literary narrative and the pictorial sequence of images, as well as bibliographic data and the item’s physical location.

Scholarship addressing humanities scholars’ image-based primary source needs has yet to narrow in on book illustrations. This gap in scholarship is surprising given the ongoing effort for libraries to digitize books, to generate online exhibitions, and to highlight illustrations from their collections. The way that illustrations from books continue to proliferate from their sources in libraries to their transformation on social media and on Google Images has made the phenomenon of de-contextualization worthy of inquiry. If Google-Image style browsing is less than ideal then: what are the optimal ways of presenting the illustrated book in context for humanities scholars––specifically for the sub-group of illustration searchers—in their online browsing?

This information studies research minds the gap between the de-contextualized illustration à la Google and contextualized alternatives from the perspective of select humanities scholars. The data collected to fill in the understanding of the contextual gap comes from twelve interviews with scholars from art history. Interviewees responded to a series of image browsing scenarios, which centered around six main themes, involving: the illustration in relation to the form of the book, related images to a selected page, collection highlights, essential metadata, and bibliographic descriptions. Interviewees were then asked to respond to these scenarios by explaining what they found familiar and why, what they preferred and why, and what drawbacks they saw and why.

This presentation showcases research highlights (research was conducted as part of the presenter’s information studies masters). Participants preferred the scenario that offered the illustrations in their two-page layouts to their cropped form. They also tended agree that the name and role of the illustrator is integral to the bare-bones bibliographic data for image use. More than subject and genre classification, the book’s two-page spread and artist’s name facilitates searchability and further research for art historians. However, rare books and special collections libraries in Canada are largely inconsistent with how they provide online access to book illustrations. The illustrator’s name and the form of the book are not a given in an online world that has separated textual literature from its visual sibling.
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