Small, but mighty

At Museums and the Web I saw many seductive and sparkly websites, aimed at getting people discovering and interacting with collections online. However, the site that really stuck with me is the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Collection Search, and the work done by the V&A to meet a particular group’s needs.

Sarah Winmill (Head of Information Systems Services at the V&A) presented on Providing freely downloadable images to the academic community in a demo session at the conference. In her session Sarah described why the V&A had decided to provide print-quality images to researchers over the web, and how they were doing it.

The V&A put up their Collections Search in 2003, with about 4,000 low-resolution images of collection items (since grown to about 43,000 images representing 27,000 items). Academic researchers could now find images online, but to obtain print-quality images they still had to go to the V&A photograph library and pay publishing fees. From Sarah’s paper:

Even though these fees were less than commercial charges they were often criticised by the academic press. That started a debate in the museum which revealed tensions between the obligations of a publicly funded body and the trend towards open access on the one hand, and the need to earn revenue on the other. It was decided to allow public users to download high resolution images for specific uses, with the intention of supporting academic publishing.


People can now register to download A5-sized, print-quality from the Collections Search site for certain uses:

  • academic/educational/scholarly publications
  • scholarly journals
  • student theses
  • private study and research
  • critical editorial use
  • charity, society and trust newsletters.

There are also a number of conditions restricting how the images can be used (all listed in Sarah’s paper and on the site). The V&A keeps a log of all the transactions, so there’s a trail to follow if there’s any inappropriate usage.

But mighty

Three things that impressed me:

  1. The V&A responded to criticism/demand from a user group, and revised the way they worked in order to meet their needs.
  2. The solution not only helps users (through fast provision of print-quality images) but also benefits the sector (by lowering publication costs). The debate over the cost of obtaining digital images from cultural institutions in New Zealand had a good airing on Russell Brown’s Hard News earlier this year.
  3. The amount of work that’s clearly gone into creating this image search site. Not only has the V&A invested a lot of curatorial time into assessing the copyright status of these objects and images (see the paper for their approach). But as I understand it, curators are writing contextual information about every object added to the site.

I wanted to link here to three randomly-selected entries on the site to illustrate my point, but found that the URLs I tried to paste in didn't work when other people tried to follow them. It would be great if the site provided permanent URLs for each image page, so people could email and bookmark them. We have a similar problem with Timeframes, but you can get a URL for an image file by using the 'Linking to this' URLs shown under the image.

By Courtney Johnston

Courtney did almost every job in the web team, and is now out in the world and in charge of everything.

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