City of Venice, 19th century albumen print
City of Venice, 19th century albumen print © Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art

In May 2004, HEFCE awarded the Institute a grant of £86,000 for 'Creation of a technical infrastructure to support the use of digital images in teaching and learning’. This rapidly became known as 'the slide digitisation project’ although digitisation of the images from the Slide Library was not the sole aim. The broad intention was to equip the Lecture Theatre and Seminar Room One with permanent, good quality digital projection facilities; provide a pool of laptops and portable digital projectors sufficient for teaching staff to teach digitally in other seminar rooms and offices as they wished, and to put in place a database to hold catalogued digital images, together with guidelines on how to capture or request digital images from different sources, cataloguing information, image standards, training and so on. At the end of the summer term the project team held a well-attended briefing, discussion and question and answer session with the potential users, the academic staff. Building on this, the team, which included members from the slide library, photography, digital media, IT and academic staff began weekly discussions on the scope of the project; to examine and frequently reject — on the grounds of cost — possible solutions and scenarios and finally to draw up a budget for approval and implementation.

The project team achieved all of this as initially outlined, but the most important aspects of the process arose from other issues that emerged along the way. For example, the database selected to run the digital image collection, TMS : The Museum System has, as hoped, the potential to be used across other image-generating departments and thence to create a single point of access to a range of images within the Institute. The urgent need for a high-speed network to carry on-line image traffic internally is clear. Debates on the most affordable way to store archival quality images continue. As an Institute we abide by copyright law, but licences and agreements in this particular area are still under development. Art historical image databases and sources on the internet abound, but there is little sense of whether the Institute will take these up rapidly or whether the 'bespoke’ image for a particular pedagogic purpose will be preferred. Digital images can offer advantages, for example in enhanced detail and colour accuracy, but, like slides, they still remain surrogates for the original and a slide collection of over 400,000 items is a very attractive resource. Today, a carousel of slides or a collection of digital images for a lecture is a personal choice. Uptake by academic staff looks set to be incremental; those engaging with the project at this stage generally wish slides to be digitised and catalogued for future use after the completion of a specific course of lectures —in fact, a very sensible way of building a database. The project has provided the Institute with yet another way of teaching and learning with images; it will be interesting to see how it is exploited and developed.

Dr. Sue Price
Head of Information Services & Project Manager