In his early years at Penn State, Craig Zabel spent many hours amidst wooden cataloging cabinets containing drawers full of photographic slides. With nimble fingers and unwavering focus, Zabel — an associate professor and head of Penn State’s Department of Art History — would rake through rows of 35mm slides for the perfect image to add to his lesson plan, a quest that was never truly over.
“Teaching art history is a lot of hunting and pecking,” Zabel said. “I'm always in search of that better image or better way to explain things in my lessons.”
Although Zabel enjoys the nostalgia of shuffling through slides, the process can be time consuming and limited. But thanks to digitization efforts by the department’s Visual Resources Centre (VRC), Zabel now explores the library’s images right from his computer.
Founded in the mid-1960s as the photographic slide library, the VRC on the second floor of Borland Building maintains a digital collection of arts and architecture images ranging in subject from ancient Chinese pottery to the most recent works of contemporary art.
At its peak, the library housed more than 350,000 35mm slides, a collection that has since decreased to approximately 200,000 after the center’s shift to digitization in 1999.
According to Carolyn Lucarelli, the center’s curator, the digitization of the slide collection sprung out of a need to catalog and organize the library’s large volume of images.
“Back in the old days, everything was typed on a typewriter and none of that information was stored,” Lucarelli said. “So the first step was to create a database to house the metadata — the identifying information for each image — and as the years went by, the images themselves were scanned and added as well.”
This process has resulted in a collection of more than 80,000 high-resolution images, which are available to anyone with a current Penn State user ID (e.g., xyz5000) and password thanks to a partnership with the University Libraries’ Digital Collections.
“We’ve been able to reach so many more people through the digital images,” Lucarelli said. “The great thing about digital is it doesn't require someone to actually come in and pull a physical slide.”
The VRC has also worked with the Palmer Museum of Art to scan and input data for more than 7,000 works from current collections as well as past exhibitions, a catalog that is available to anyone with access to the internet.
“We’ve been uploading the Palmer Museum of Art exhibitions with the images and labels as they appeared at the physical exhibition,” Lucarelli said. “So it will hopefully become an archive of every exhibition that comes through the museum.”
In addition to scanning and inputting data, the center’s staff also manages the quality of scanned images — checking for color errors and any other visible signs of deterioration.
Currently, this responsibility falls to Andrea Middleton, a graduate student studying art history and an assistant with the VRC. Middleton spends her days at the center scanning images from books and slides and using Adobe Photoshop to preserve the integrity of the visual resources.
“Sometimes the slides are so old that the color has changed, so I scan and color correct them to take any blemishes out of the photo,” Middleton said.
For Middleton, aside from the opportunity to view a variety of art history images she might not have seen elsewhere, working with the VRC has given her the chance to be part of the preservation of visual culture.
“I think it's important we keep our images up to date on the latest software because, eventually, no one is going to have slide projectors anymore,” Middleton said. “We need to continue updating our images with technology so we don't lose them in the future.”
This shift toward digitization has also changed the way faculty members teach art history. According to Lucarelli, because the online image database is searchable, it’s easier than ever before for faculty members like Zabel to find and download the resources they need.
“It took some time to convince faculty over the years, but now everybody in our department is teaching with digital images,” Lucarelli said. “I think they realized they can be so much more creative in their presentations since they've got an open range to really do anything.”
Previously, faculty members needed to reserve slides in the hope that no one else was using them, a concern that, according to Zabel, has since resolved thanks to the digital collection.
“One of the great benefits of digital images versus slides is that the digital images are infinite,” Zabel said. “Anywhere from four to a thousand people can use the same image on the same day — something that wasn’t possible with a limited amount of traditional slides.”
And while Zabel still fondly remembers leafing through drawers of slides, the endless opportunities of the digital collection are a welcome resource in his continuing search for that next perfect image.