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Visual Databases

In the past, when tasked with a visual design project, I would typically spend some time researching visual approaches and visual references. Often that would include digging through old design magazines, a trip to the library, and a stop off at the bookstore.

And then the internet came along. For both better and worse, I now no longer need to get out of my chair.

Last week, the New York Public library launched their Digital Gallery web site. It’s a resource containing over 275,000 images collected by the library, “including illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints and photographs, illustrated books, printed ephemera, and more.” My favorite is the current Curator’s Choice of American Posters printed from 1893 through the first few years of the 20th Century. It took four years and an army of a team to get this up. Nice work! (The Rogue Librarian as a few tidbits on the back-end technology for us geeks that like that stuff.)

Locally, here in Minnesota, we have another fine database that has been put together by our historical society: the Visual Resources Database. I had the pleasure of working on the front-end for this system. Alas, the interface has morphed quite a bit since I last touched it into a bit of a jumble, but that doesn’t detract too much from the contents…including some great wood-type posters.

Then there’s the big one: the library of congress site which has databases on everything from railroad maps to Jackie Robinson to early American advertising.

In addition to great image reference sites as those above, there’s also the community-based stock photo sites. These are a great resource for research with the added bonus of being a source for stock photos. The two most well known ones are iStockPhoto and stock.xchng. Both sites allow users to upload their own photos and allow the rest of the world to use them. iStockPhoto works on a credit system (where you can either buy low-cost credits, or earn them by uploading your own images) while stock.xchng is simply free. And while neither site will really compare to the quality of commercial photography, there’s a lot of great stuff to be found.

Another new resource is Flickr the buzz-generating image sharing web site. It’s received plenty of good press due to its uncomplicated interface and blog-like concept of sharing personal photos. Just announced is their new Stock Repository group where you can sign up and then attach creative commons licenses to your images if you choose to share it with the world as usable stock imagery. (More info at Web-Graphics)

And finally, a quick mention of the AIGA’s Design Archive, which we recently wrote about here on Speak Up.

I still advocate getting out of your seat on occasion and making that trek to the library or bookstore, but these sites can be a great resource as well. What are your favorite image research sites?

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ARCHIVE ID 2240 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON Mar.08.2005 BY darrel
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Archive fever has swept the nation. Everyone wants to catalog, search, view, and index content. And all of these sites add to the frenzy.

It's a perplexing situation, this archive fever. But for designers, it means we have new challenges to attack. When brought on board for an interface job, it's not just about the look and feel of two pages worth of content—you've got pages upon pages. Image after image. It's a jungle out there. And Amazon.com's leading the way. Most users look to that site as an ideal way to nagigate terabytes worth of content. Unfortunately, it sets the bar low for designers when the norm looks normal.

On Mar.08.2005 at 11:17 PM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

For research:

The ubiquitious Google

For research & images to use:

The U.S. National Archives & Records Administration has a big photo collection online. Most images have no copyright & can be downloaded (as GIFs!) in large sizes. The strapline for this collection should be: Over 100 years of banal & boring American photography. This is where I got the photo for my now world-famous Speak Up poster contest entry.

NASA is great for anything space, not just Americans in space. I got some great images of early Soviet space stuff from their GrIN site

The Victoria & Albert Museum

The Bridgeman Art Library

On Mar.09.2005 at 05:12 AM
Ross Cooper’s comment is:

Jussi �ngeslev� and I created Fliker (it's not a typo just an unfortunate coincidence) which is a fast way of searching for images, all you have to do is concentrate on the images that flash in front of you. Because Fliker displays all the images in the same place you don't have to scan across rows of pictures or scroll down a web page. Fliker is also an inspirational tool, it dynamically reacts to your search terms as you type, so you receive exciting and unxpected results as you spell your searches out. For example searching for 'cartoon' would receive results for 'car', 'carts', maps ('carto') and everything inbetween. It is in public beta at the moment so it has some issues...

On Mar.09.2005 at 08:30 AM
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Ross, that is seriously impressive!

But what's with the security warning that it makes my browsers throw up?

On Mar.09.2005 at 10:26 AM
James A. Reeves’s comment is:

Aside from listing several incredible and dizzying resources, this entry opens an intriguing qualifier: For better and worse, I now no longer need to get out of my chair. I think it’s worth discussing �the worst’ for a moment. When it comes to researching images or looking for inspiration, the internet has thrown the doors open to a bright, easy, and endless room whose contents are, in most cases, far more diverse than what I might find in brick-and-mortar establishments. So why do I feel guilty about relying on it? What, exactly, is motivating that shrill inner voice that says, “This isn’t true research! Get away from your computer and do something real”?

I feel like an imposter when I rely on the internet for my research. Is it simply because the computer, far from being the “tool” that many like to describe, is an environment that changes and perhaps even suppresses the background thoughts that surface when handling a real book or walking home from the library? Is it because everyone else has access to the same images 24/7? Yet isn’t this a good thing, that the game is more about selection and talent rather than access? What, exactly, are the drawbacks of online research?

I’ll cut this post short before it goes off the rails (the internet smiles upon short text blocks) — I suppose my question is: where does this perceived �internet guilt’ come from? Is it valid, or is it simply a knee-jerk reaction to the imagined loss of the local bookstore and the eventual firing of librarians?

On Mar.09.2005 at 10:53 AM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

imagined loss of the local bookstore and the eventual firing of librarians

Imagined is the right qualifier. We're not in a Bradbury book, and information won't go the way of William Gibson—digitari instead of paper.

This is all another media. That's all. I've been to libraries that still have card catalogs, dictionaries, and CD-Roms. It's imaginative to think we'll all be on the same archiveable level: computers, data matrices, rich interactive references, or palm-based books.

Why feel guilty? Why think librarians will be fired? They won't. They'll evolve and adapt to technology, just like us designers had to. When the Mac stomped out letraset and rubylith, designers took the technology into the studio, learned it, mastered it, and made it part of their creative work flow. It's naive to think librarians will just get fired, or give up all together. In fact, it's just as naive as saying, "All this software will make designers obsolete. Pre-built templates and automated-design-style-sheets...who needs designers?"

On Mar.09.2005 at 12:05 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

I think it’s worth discussing �the worst’ for a moment.

Well, in my case, it's not internet guilt but rather a sore back, fat ass, and 'cubicle fever' if I don't leave once in a while. ;o)

imagined loss...of librarians

These web sites all require the use of the librarians skills. The internet is a boon to the library sciences. With more information, we need need more people with the skills to develop taxonomies to digest it all. I'd say getting a degree in some sort of library science is a good move these days.

On Mar.09.2005 at 12:44 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

I'd say getting a degree in some sort of library science is a good move these days.

We see eye to eye then, Darrel.

On Mar.09.2005 at 12:45 PM
Tim’s comment is:

It' not a site, but does the Dover Pictorial Archive Series count? Maybe Google has rendered this resource obsolete, but I still use 'em.

On Mar.09.2005 at 01:09 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>I'd say getting a degree in some sort of library science is a good move these days.

That's so true. I actually know a couple of people who left agency life to go back to school for a grad degree in library sciences. I guess librarians aren't what they used to be anymore. Apparently, it's the system analysts degree of the next decade.

And for those worried about losing libraries and bookstores — don't. In just about every category of business and culture, the internet hasn't replaced, but supplemented traditional brick&mortar versions of whatever's the newest online offering. The only exception may be travel agencies. But bookstores are doing fine, music stores are bigger than ever, etc.

On Mar.09.2005 at 01:48 PM
James A. Reeves’s comment is:

I absolutely agree what all that has been said regarding the state of library science. I regret that the conclusion of my initial post drifted into hyperbole; the last thing I mean to do is resurrect the boring & generally wrongheaded idea that, when it comes to digital and brick-and-mortar methods of research/production/consumption/etc., it is an 'either/or' proposition. The librarians and (medium to large) booksellers will be just fine.

Rather, I am interested in the perceptions that surround digital research and the persistent idea that traditional methods are somehow 'better' - this sounds right to me, but I’m not exactly sure why. As a former student, am I simply working through the reactionary skepticism of my older professors? Is it because my current students demand instant gratification? Sure — but I wonder if there are other, more complex reasons for feeling that digital research and resources are somehow “cheap” . . . I am eager to hear more constructive discussion about how researching and looking for inspiration solely within the computer impacts one’s design approach & thought processes, as compared to working in an �analogue’ mode.

On Mar.09.2005 at 05:22 PM
Paul’s comment is:

James, at the risk of broad generalization and armchair psychoanalysis, I think many people, and designers especially, have an almost fetishistic love for doing things the "hard" way. This is especially true if one has invested significant amounts of time learning how to do something well. Googling an image is so flippin' easy (and fun! I love the random, unrelated images you get.) that it makes all those magazines stacked up in the corner look pretty sad. And who wants to feel like they've been wasting time in the acquisition of obsolete expertise?

As for the quality of the end results, I don't think it matters. Knowing how to see is more important than knowing how to look, if you catch my drift.

On Mar.09.2005 at 08:17 PM