Web Archiving Visual Resources for Art Research

Over the past year, I’ve been working as a Mellon grant-funded intern for the New York Art Resources Consortium (NYARC) as part of a web archiving team based out of the three museums. Working at the Frick Art Reference Library has been a delight, and it has nurtured my interest in the evolving nature of research and collection accessibility in general.

The goals of the web archiving work for NYARC were primarily focused on making online art resources more accessible and preserving web content for future scholars. When it comes to art resources, materials such as auction catalogs, catalogues raisonnés, exhibition catalogs, and gallery and museum websites serve as essential research tools, and the format of these resources has rapidly—and often exclusively—shifted toward the digital. Despite the advantages of having so much information freely available online, the format also poses two of the greatest challenges in keeping online art resources accessible: not only is information hosted online exceptionally transient in nature, the sheer enormity of available information also threatens to overwhelm art researchers. When Google returns millions of results for any given search, how does anyone sort through the extraneous, useless, or inaccurate information to get to the kind of data that can support scholarly research?

The NYARC web archiving team

NYARC’s goals for web archiving are also somewhat unique from other web archives because they are focused on visual art resources. While web archives like Columbia’s Human Rights Archives are primarily focused on preserving the content, NYARC also wanted to preserve the original presentation. The look and feel of contemporary artists’ web sites is as important to researchers as the factual information contained within the sites; however, accurately capturing dynamic, visually complex sites such as Wangechi Mutu‘s is incredibly challenging for web crawlers like the Internet Archive’s Heritrix crawler. It can take many rounds of patch crawling to capture all of the visual information, and some sites are simply not crawlable and must be captured by other means.

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Presentation for NYARC staff at the Frick Collection (May 2015)

Funded by both the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation, my work with NYARC helped uncover some of the answers to the questions looming on the forefront of art research institutions today. Yet taken more broadly, the questions truly encompass the work of all research libraries: how to maintain access to digital content, how to assess what is worth keeping temporarily or in perpetuity, who should be responsible for maintaining access, and—perhaps most importantly—how to ensure that researchers will be able to find and access digital content now and in the future. Although my internship and involvement in this project has ended, I’m proud to have helped contribute to NYARC’s work and I’m also incredibly grateful to have been part of the “Frick family” for at least a little while.