Sunday, April 29, 2007

Digitization Gear

Increasingly, we need to get images and texts into digital form. Here are some methods of doing this. As far as I know, everything out there is either based on use of some form of scanner or digital camera, each of which has its merits.

All or most of us have used some sort of scanner. The results are usually good, but the process is slow and it can be really hard to position a heavy art book on the scanner while simultaneously using the scanner software. Some special-purpose scanners include:

The Plustek OpticBook is designed specifically for scanning books. How? The scanning surface goes all the way to the edge of the scanner and it's designed to scan the book page without getting a dark or fuzzy edge near the gutter. This scanner is extremely popular with students who use tablet computers, as they can easily (although not all that quickly) scan their textbooks and no longer have to carry them. It's a relatively inexpensive scanner and hasn't gotten stellar reviews for image quality, but it appears to be good enough for most purposes. It is probably not large enough to handle the really big art books.

The Digital Sender is a spiffy machine that will rapidly take your photocopies and make PDF files from them. I believe this is what the University of Pittsburgh library uses to create its electronic reserve readings. The quality depends on the original photocopy, of course, but I've been very much impressed with the results after using it to digitize hundreds of pages of photocopied articles. I recommend using Acrobat's Capture feature on the resulting PDFs so that the text will be searchable and highlightable. Anyone teaching a course at Pitt is eligible to use the Digital Sender at CIDDE. My guess is that other schools also have these magic scanners.

Camera-based tools include:
ATIZ offers BookDrive DIY, a setup that cradles the book and uses two digital cameras to produce the images. Their website describes it as "fast, affordable and upgradable." It looks as though this is a variant on the old-style camera stand, but designed specifically for getting good results from books. Both cameras go simultaneously, and you see your results on the computer screen. It comes in two sizes and I think you supply your own cameras and computer. At 35kg/77lbs this is not a very portable solution, but could be a good departmental purchase.

Snapter, a new software from ATIZ, is designed to turn photos from your digital camera into usable documents. Among other things, it claims to flatten curled pages, improve lighting, and save in various formats. If Snapter does all it claims, it will be a boon to those of us who photograph books or bound periodicals at libraries and archives. For example, I've photographed historic bound periodicals, some of them with rather tight bindings, and plan to use some of them for class exercises in visual literacy. (Students examine two or three periodicals in a language none of them is likely to know, and analyze the editorial direction and readership from the design.) An early review indicates it has trouble working with musical scores, so it may not be ideal for pages that are mostly art, but test results on text seem to be satisfactory. Snapter offers a 14-day free trial and is $49 otherwise.

Note: I subsequently tested Snapter version 1.03.04 on book photos, results of which can be seen elsewhere. Art reproductions did not pose a problem, but other things did.

Another note: It looks as though ABBYY FineReader Professional may be the way to handle documents photographed with a digital camera. This OCR program, which is multilingual, can now create searchable PDF files from digital photos. Perhaps less useful for teaching than for research, but I can't wait to try this!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Image Resources Online at Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has loads of amazing images online, and is adding more regularly (see Exhibitions page). Here are just a few of the many to consider when putting together courses.

The Empire That Was Russia: The Prokudin-Gorskii Photographic Record Recreated is an amazing collection of early twentieth-century color photographs from Czarist Russia. Prokudin-Gorskii traveled all over the empire photographing its inhabitants using a system of three cameras with separate filters. This would be great for use in history of photography courses and for Russian art.

Online exhibition on Leonardo's Study for Adoration of the Magi.

Arthur Szyk: Artist for Freedom. Work by a Jewish antifascist cartoonist and miniaturist, mostly around the time of World War II.

The Floating World of Ukiyo-E: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. "This exhibition showcases the Library's spectacular holdings of Japanese prints, books, and drawings from the 17th to the 19th centuries. These works are complemented by related works from the Library's collections created by Japanese and Westerns artists into the 20th century."

Frank Lloyd Wright: Designs for an American Landscape, 1922-1932.

A Heavenly Craft: The Woodcut in Early Printed Books.

The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention. Showcases the designs of this legendary team. Lots of images.

Life of the People: Realist Prints and Drawings from the Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection, 1912-1948. Includes works by Sloan, Benton, and other American artists of the first half of the twentieth century. This would make a good supplement to Frances Pohl's Framing America text.

The Library of Congress has many more exhibitions, plus images such as early photographs and daguerreotypes, early sheet music covers, and so forth.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Why We're Here

Why a blog about teaching art history? And who writes this blog?

Art history like many other academic disciplines, has its own unique requirements, many of which center around the fact that our students need to be able to see reproductions of and/or original works of art, which tends to mean spending a lot of time in a darkened classroom. Historically, this has meant an emphasis on lecture courses, with seminars only for more advanced students. While lectures in darkened rooms are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, with increased use of technology in the classroom (PowerPoint, ArtStor, and Courseweb, to name a few examples), changes in pedagogy are underway.

At University of Pittsburgh, a good percentage of the grad students in History of Art and Architecture are preparing for teaching careers. Everyone in the program can expect to spend some time as a teaching assistant, and will probably also teach at least one stand-alone course. Consequently, we'd all like to improve our skills! We have an interest in finding out about and sharing best practices or innovative ideas, whether technological or not. Sometimes the best way to do something will be an old and familiar way, and sometimes it will be new and surprising. Our hope is to create a forum where we can share tips, resources, and lots of good ideas in an easy to access format.

For example, at University of Pittsburgh, we have CIDDE (the Center for Instructional Development & Distance Education) and a new, department-specific pedagogy course, but many of us haven't taken the course, and some aren't in residence so can't attend events at CIDDE. This is probably a very typical situation--certain resources are in place but not always accessible. A blog, we hope, will help put a variety of resources at our fingertips and provide a friendly forum for discussion as well.

How will it work? We'll post irregularly, as ideas occur to us. We'll have a variety of topics, applicable to different aspects of the field. The blog will be searchable by category (for example, ArtStor, Courseweb/Blackboard, Lecturing, Tests, General Tips) and will include links to other useful sites. Using categories allows easy access to a wide variety of topics, some of which may prove to be a bit more tangential (job interview tips, for example). Readers can comment on the posts, which will provide additional ideas and information.

We hope this blog will prove useful and enjoyable both for the grad students at University of Pittsburgh and for anyone else interested in improving their ability to teach art history and/or visual culture.