A virtual library for iconographic research

A virtual library for iconographic research

Henri van de Waal created Iconclass with a dual purpose: 1) to classify the subject matter of images, and 2) to provide access to the iconographic information in scholarly literature.

More than forty years onward, the Iconclass system has indeed been applied to a rich array of image collections, but it has rarely been used to organize bibliographic information.

This post is to let you know we have plans to revive the original Iconclass Bibliography and, at the same time, to find out if this idea will be met with a positive response from the user community.

The aim of the original Bibliography was “to be a useful aid in iconographic study”. It was not to be “limited to references of a purely art-historical nature” because “specialized studies on the history of mining or the history of the shoe … may be absolutely essential in solving problems of a more general art-historical character”. Abstract ideas, religious beliefs, material objects, historical events, human actions, animal behaviour: all of these and more could be visualized or imagined and then interpreted in scholarly literature - which gave the Iconclass Bibliography its wide scope.

What made the Iconclass Bibliography truly exceptional, however, was not just this broad interest in every aspect of the history of visual culture, but first and foremost the way the information was organized.

The entries of the Bibliography were created in tandem with the classification itself, and the topics found in scholarly literature helped shape the classification. As a consequence the Bibliography is not just organized by subject matter, mirroring the classification itself, but it also references the literature from the perspective of visualization and image creation.
Although the original aim of the Bibliography is still valid, the original workflow – manually tagging the information in books and articles with Iconclass concepts – is no longer feasible. Neither is the original format: a card file and printed volumes …

So, how can we turn a static, printed bibliography into a dynamic online research tool, maintained and enriched by the community of Iconclass users?

Restarting the Bibliography

First of all, we don’t have to start from scratch, as we can build on the foundation that was laid in the early 1990’s. At that time the original printed volumes were converted into a carefully edited machine-readable file.
This data file could eventually enrich the Illustrated Iconclass Edition with references to relevant literature, with links to OCLC’s WorldCat and with digitized full text sources.

To illustrate how these elements will converge, I am using this snippet from the original printed Iconclass Bibliography. These are the entries for the concept 48C93 portrait of a writer.

All entries have been converted to database records, and wherever possible a link to a Worldcat entry has been added. Here, for example, is the database equivalent of the entry encircled in the screenshot above:

ID icbib_22348
TITLE [Exhibition catalogue] Engraved portraits of women writers from
Sappho to George Eliot. Grolier-Club
PUB New York
DATE 1895
IC 48C93
PURL https://worldcat.org/en/title/875138599

As a result this information:

would be augmented with the following references:

The original Bibliography contains circa 60,000 references to some 20,000 sources, a firm starting point for a Virtual Library on Iconography.

However, boosting its functionality may rejuvenate the original Bibliography, it does not automatically lead to new growth. For the Bibliography to start growing again, additional steps are needed, in collaboration with institutions that have used Iconclass to tag their collections as well as with the community of Iconclass users.

Expanding the Bibliography

A first step should probably be to do a survey among the community of users to determine how many of them can export the iconographic information that is present in their database, but is not searchable by subject, even though it may be linked – directly or indirectly – to Iconclass concepts. It is fairly easy to imagine that the iconographic information laying dormant in those databases can be extracted and converted into new bibliographic entries.

As iconographic research consists, at least in part, in processing literature about the investigated images, every cataloguer and researcher is in fact collecting bibliographic information. The second step we need to take then, is to build an easy-to-use extension of the Iconclass Browser which every registered user can access to deposit bibliographic references. A simple Google Form will do the trick. Any user could then add this entry to the list of publications about author portraits:

[Exhibition catalogue] Erasmus in beeld. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2008. In particular pp. 55-89: P. van der Coelen, Portretten van Erasmus.

Unavoidably two types of objections will be raised against a scheme like this:

  • If we allow every user to upload references, can we control the quality of the entries?
  • In a world where digitized primary sources and secondary literature are published at a much higher rate than any researcher can process them, how complete can a Virtual Library aspire to be? And, if a bibliography or a library cannot boast comprehensiveness, why bother?

Well, an answer to the first question that is both practical and philosophical is that this would be the problem we would love to have. It would mean that the community of Iconclass users is actually making use of an opportunity for collaboration. We have been hearing for years now, how collaboration is an important feature of the Digital Humanities potential, and so I think it is more important to focus on opportunities rather than dangers. In addition, we could use the various systems already in place, such as user registration but also DOI’s and Handles, to ensure that new references are compliant with existing mechanisms of quality control.

The answer to the second question is also fairly simple: in our context “completeness” is an irrelevant concept. There is no way any bibliography can keep up with the rising flood of information, as the web search engines we all rely on, are demonstrating every day. They only function because most of our daily questions are trivial and we accept that they lie by omission without making a fuss.

A much more relevant concept is knowledge organization, and that is exactly what the structure of Iconclass offers. As a ready-made multilingual filing cabinet it is a natural basis for collaboration and its public availability guarantees open access and transparency.

In addition its organization is open and up for review and improvement by the whole community of users. While the inner workings of search engines are hidden from view, the way Iconclass organizes information is in plain sight.

To conclude:

We invite institutional users who want to share batches of bibliographical references, indexed with Iconclass, to contact us.

and individual users who may want to make incidental contributions, let us know if you would like to test the Google Form.