CAA Statement on the Importance of Physical Research Collections
Adopted by the CAA Board of Directors in November 2022.
Both art historical scholarship and visual arts practice rely heavily on research within all manner of media from traditional printed books and journals, archival collections, and unique holdings found in special collections, to film, video, and picture collections. In recent years, digitization has made electronic surrogates of vast amounts of information available online. While this has been a boon to scholars and artists the world over, it has led to a false belief among some decision-makers at colleges and universities, museums, and other research institutions that physical collections are no longer central to academic or artistic research if the same or similar content is available in digital form. In several recent instances, high-level plans have been made to downsize or close physical collections, only to be reversed after strong protest from faculty, students, and other user groups. Recent temporary closures of physical collections due to health and safety requirements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed how essential physical collections are to scholarly and artistic projects, with many projects being placed on hold until such restrictions are lifted. This paper seeks to establish the importance of physical collections for scholarly and artistic research ahead of such discussions, to provide a clear set of principles as to why these collections are fundamental, and to proactively state the position of CAA and its membership.
Physical collections are defined here as collections of research materials in their original analog media. Such collections typically consist of printed works (books, journals, newspapers, posters, advertisements, etc.), unique archival material (manuscripts, correspondences, business records), recorded media (records, tapes, optical media), film and video, and ephemera. Published material is typically held in research libraries, rare published and unpublished material is most often housed in archives and special collections within or separate from larger research libraries.
Physical Collections and Scholarship
While the written word is the material, source, and chief building block of most scholarship, it is not the only evidence or substance available to scholars. The 2021 Art Libraries Society of North America–sponsored panel at the 109th College Art Association Annual Conference titled “Analog Research and the Limits of Digital in the Age of COVID-19” looked at scholarship that relied on physical collections from the points of view of an academic art historian, a museum curator, and an art librarian, and identified a number of areas where digital surrogates fail to provide critical information.i Some of the problems identified include:
- The notion that a digital surrogate is representative of a standard original, when in some cases, no such standard copy exists, as all are unique (particularly relevant in the case of early photobooks and exemplified by the unique versions of “editioned” works by Anna Atkins)
- Tactility and intrinsic qualities of actual objects as fundamental to their experience and function (such as in the case of the mail art of Ray Johnson) are lost in a digital format
- Unique features of individual copies of printed sources, including annotations, hand drawing, hand-coloring, and other alterations or unique qualities of individual copies are obscured
- Lack of serendipitous discovery of material due to physical collocation
- Absence of physical expressions of data within the original format, from scale and texture to weight and size, to color and legibility of illustrations
While such concerns are obvious to those who do primary research with archives and special collections, they can also have profound effects on limiting what can be discovered by those conducting broader, secondary research. While digitization has the incredible virtue of making more information available to ever larger audiences, it carries with it the limitation of reducing all objects to truly two-dimensional, pixilated images, experienced in the same form on the screen of a computer or device, divorcing the intellectual substance from the form of its carrier, leading to the spurious idea that “content” can be entirely separated from its containers.
Recent Threats to Physical Collections and Constituents’ Responses to Them
In 2021 the New York Public Library announced plans to close and archive its circulating Picture Collection, which was established in 1915.ii This collection of over a million images organized across 12,000 subjects—used by artists from Dorthea Lange and Diego Rivera to Andy Warhol and Taryn Simon—has been a vital resource for practicing artists, scholars, and the general public alike.iii Criticism from users, including articles in such high-profile publications as Artforum and the New York Times, was heeded by the library, and the senior administration decided to keep the collection circulating and in the main research branch of the library in Manhattan, albeit in a smaller room with restricted browsing.iv
More representative of trends in research libraries was the 2018 plan to vastly decrease the physical holdings of the Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas at Austin, to make room in existing facilities for new programs and services. Similar plans were made at the Fine Arts Library at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.v In both cases these plans led to action from university faculty and students that resulted in compromise solutions preserving much of the on-site collections. Nonetheless, collections in many institutions continue to be moved off-site, sometimes without easy or timely recall. For many types of materials, such as journals without high-quality reproductions, such actions are necessary, and digital surrogates do often provide nearly perfect access to the scholarly substance contained within. But what is clear is that primary constituencies are an integral part of decision-making and determining which collections remain on-site, as needs of space and other university priorities are considered.
Affirmation of the Importance of Physical Collections
CAA, as the professional organization of art historians and studio art faculty, affirms the importance of physical collections and their paramount and fundamental importance in our work. In decisions affecting access, preservation, and stewardship of these collections, faculty, staff, students, and researchers must be consulted and play an integral and engaged role from the beginning. While the future of scholarship and research benefits greatly from digital efforts, it still relies heavily on analog resources and, particularly in the area of the study of art and visual culture, will continue to do so. The global pandemic of the past two years has only magnified our reliance on such collections.
i “Analog Research and the Limits of the Digital in the Age of COVID-19,” panel presented at the 109th Annual Conference of the College Art Association, February 2021. Panel chaired by Eric M. Wolf, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, speakers were Suzanne Preston Blier, Harvard University, Caitlin Welsh Haskell, the Art Institute of Chicago, Emily Walz, New York Public Library, and the discussant was Chantal Lee, New York Public Library.
ii Tony Marx, “Update on the New York Public Library’s Picture Collection,” NYPL blog, September 17, 2021, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2021/09/17/update-new-york-public-librarys-picture-collection?utm_source=eNewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=ResearchUpdate_20210920&utm_campaign=ResearchUpdate, accessed December 27, 2021.
iii Diana Kamin, “Total Recall: Diana Kamin on the New York Public Library’ Picture Collection,” Artforum, August 30, 2021, https://www.artforum.com/slant/diana-kamin-on-the-new-york-public-library-s-picture-collection-86403, accessed December 27, 2021.
iv Ibid. See also: “Hands Off the Library’s Picture Collection!” New York Times, August 3, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/03/arts/design/new-york-public-library-picture-collection.html?searchResultPosition=4, accessed December 27, 2021.
v Sarah E. Bond, “The Disappearance of Books Threatens Fine Arts Libraries,” Hyperallergic, March 21, 2018, https://hyperallergic.com/433583/fine-arts-libraries-books-disappearing/, accessed December 27, 2021.