SAH Blog


Digital research tools: a response by Dianne Harris

Jun 22, 2012

I would like to thank Morgan Ng for his thoughtful comments about the ways in which developments in the digital humanities intersect with the work and interests of historians of the built environment. I share his enthusiasm for the many new tools that are available to us and that enhance our ability to effectively teach and conduct research on a wide range of topics. As the Editor-in-Chief for SAHARA, I would like to respond to Mr. Ng’s commentary with the hope of clarifying a few key points.

First, SAHARA now contains close to 25,000 member-contributed images. About half of those have been shared with ARTstor as “Editor’s Choice” contributions to their digital library. Although that remains a relatively small number, SAHARA will grow substantially in the coming year through the bulk uploading of numerous significant collections contributed by our members. We hope to have closer to 100,000 images in SAHARA within the next 12 months. Moreover, SAHARA will become larger if our members contribute to it. I encourage Mr. Ng to help grow this important digital image archive  by adding his own images to the SAHARA collection and by encouraging his colleagues to do the same.

Second, SAHARA is a complicated project, the product of the hard work and countless volunteered hours of many of our SAH colleagues. It has been an exciting experiment, one that has established a new model of collaborative partnership between librarians and scholars. Perhaps this facet of SAHARA remains invisible to some members, which is unfortunate, since it is one of the project’s greatest accomplishments and one for which it has gained much attention and acclaim across the humanities. It also sought to establish a new form of scholarly publishing since the images that are contributed to SAHARA are peer-reviewed and then “published” to the Editor’s Choice collection in ARTstor. Again, this facet is less visible, but it is an important aspect that distinguishes SAHARA from other digital image collections. It is true, therefore, that SAHARA is growing slowly. But unlike images in other collections, you can be certain that images you find in SAHARA are of a high quality and that they are accompanied by authoritative metadata. This may not matter to some scholars, but it does matter to many of us.

Third, no one working in the digital image world imagines that scholars will ever perform “one stop shopping” for the images they use for teaching and research. The internet is full of amazing and useful websites that contain a vast array of primary source images from museum collections, archives, and the photographs that are uploaded by members of the public. SAHARA does not aim to fulfill the needs of every scholar. But it does, again, aim to provide high-quality, authoritative images contributed by SAH members who wish to share their images, their research, and their particular visual and scholarly perspectives, on architectural, landscape, and urban history.

Fourth, SAHARA currently rests on a business model that is determined, in part, by parameters that are set by our technology host and partner and by the foundation that provided the funds for its creation.  We, too, hope to experiment with alternative business models that may allow some or all of SAHARA to become available to a wider audience in the future. At the moment, however, the project is bound by contracts that specify access policies. So the limitation of access is not determined by a desire for restricted access, but instead by complicated contracts that must be honored for the time being.

Finally, I’m pleased to report that SAHARA is attracting considerable traffic, and seems to be a useful tool for many SAH members. The 2011 report from ARTstor indicates that  there were 119,671 image requests from SAHARA for this past year.  Like any new, innovative tool, it is a work-in-progress; it is imperfect. But with the support of members like Mr. Ng, I hope it will become a resource that serves SAH members for many years to come.

-- Dianne Harris

Editor-in-Chief, SAHARA

President, Society of Architectural Historians 

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