Get the picture?

April 30, 2004

The digital archiving of images dating back to the earliest days of photography is set to revolutionise teaching. Chris Johnston finds out more.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but images have the ability to inform, amaze or shock in ways that words cannot. The photograph of “Napalm girl” Kim Phuc, naked and screaming with pain, helped change public opinion about the Vietnam war, while the picture of a tearful Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street for the last time revealed a human side to the Iron Lady.

Many lecturers realise that a picture can convey a concept far more simply than reams of text. Yet images have not been readily used in higher education. Before the advent of laptops and digital projectors, lecturers needed expensive and time-consuming slides or overhead transparencies.

Digitisation projects, giving academics and students access to still images and video, are changing all this. One of the most exciting is Newsfilm Online, part of the Joint Information Systems Committee’s (Jisc)

£10 million CSR2 Digitisation Programme. It will encode some 3,000 hours from the ITN and Reuters archives, dating back to the 1920s, and incorporate an additional 3,500 hours of British Pathe newsreel content.

The £2.9 million project, managed by the British Universities Film and Video Council, will make the seminal events of the past nine decades, as well as more routine happenings, available for academics to download as Quicktime or Windows Media files.

Luke McKernan, the council’s head of information, says most files will be three-minute clips from programmes such as News at Ten and Channel 4 News . The entire ITN archive, which contains 130,000 hours of news content dating back to 1896, is being catalogued, so material can be identified even if it has not yet been digitised.

Making the content easy for educators to use is one lesson McKernan learnt from digitising the Pathe footage. “It was put online, but it was difficult to locate specific material, so we will create packages of footage on certain subjects, such as postwar Ireland,” he says.

While there is a planned programme for selecting material, 15 per cent has been left free to meet academics’ requests. An education officer will facilitate this process. “We hope it will be a genuinely collaborative resource - if you buy into it, you will have some control over the content,” McKernan says.

Subscription charges will be set before the first 1,000 hours are made available early next year. The remaining content will be added when 500 further hours have been encoded.

Another aspect of the programme will make a range of older images available.

Stuart Dempster, manager of the British Library Newspapers 1800Ð1900 project, says it will put online more than 2 million pages of articles, along with the illustrative material used - etchings, line drawings and the earliest photography.

However, the initiative that could prove the most successful is the Education Image Gallery. The increasing demand for high-quality copyright-free images in education has prompted Jisc to strike a deal with the world-famous picture libraries Hulton Archive and Getty Images News Service.

Matt Butson, vice-president of the archive, says 50,000 images are now available in universities and colleges, covering topics as diverse as fashion and politics. Initially, 40,000 images have been put online, with the rest being added according to demand.

The Arts Institute at Bournemouth was one of the first to subscribe and has paid just £250 for 12 months’ access (even the largest university will pay only £1,600 a year).

Valerie Lodge, a librarian at the institute, says the service is proving much more popular than the institute’s own collection, with the added bonus of avoiding copyright problems.

Butson hopes the number of pictures available will increase to include the archive’s 250,000 images dating back to the start of photography and its 1 million-plus news and sport pictures. He also predicts that students in other countries will one day gain access.

It is also only a matter of time before UK higher education can take advantage of US initiatives such as ARTstor, which contains 300,000 images covering art, architecture and archaeology. It became a non-profit organisation this year, and Jisc is negotiating to secure a national licence for the higher and further education communities.

ITN/Reuters archive:

Education Image Gallery: http:///

JISC Digitisation Programme:


ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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