Italian Trulli

Embedding Creativity Into Digital Resources: Improving Information Discovery For Art History

Christina Kamposiori (christina.kamposiori.11@ucl.ac.uk), University College London, United Kingdom and Claire Warwick (c.l.h.warwick@durham.ac.uk), University of Durham and Simon Mahony (s.mahony@ucl.ac.uk), University College London, United Kingdom

Over the past decades, the increase in the use of digital resources and the growth of research conducted in digital environments has transformed academic scholarship. Yet, as the employment of digital resources increases, so does the necessity to understand user behaviour and provide digital infrastructure tailored to the needs of researchers. Through this paper, we aim to explore how the design of digital libraries and resources can be improved to better facilitate information discovery and use in art history; for this purpose, we will look at scholars’ creative encounters with information and present the implications for resource design.

Art history is a highly creative discipline in terms of its interaction with information. Thinking about the beginning of the research process and, therefore, the seeking of the needed information, this is to a great extent linked with the scholar’s intuition and memory. These two qualities, which are associated with connoisseurship, apply especially to the case where research starts from the examination of the artwork. Brilliant (1988:121-122), for example, noted that scholars in the field, after mainly relying on their visual memory to examine a work of art, attempt to search for related information objects. In fact, artworks can often inspire the initiation of the art historical research process through enabling the discovery of the research subject and the generation of research questions; these questions, in combination with the experience of the researcher lead to the searching of the required material.

According to Shneiderman’s Genex framework (Shneiderman, 2000), which is considered appropriate for understanding creative information work, using information as a source of inspiration rather than just as research evidence constitutes a characteristic of creative disciplines (another example is architecture, as in Makri and Warwick, 2010). In the digital age, the abundance of information available through digital libraries and resources offers unparalleled opportunities for art historians to engage creatively with a variety of information objects and gain inspiration for research and teaching projects; for instance, digital images have been found to stimulate the thinking process of scholars in the field (Graham and Bailey, 2006: 22). Yet, in order to facilitate creative scholarly processes which can lead to the production of knowledge, information discovery and related phenomena, such as serendipity, which have been found to trigger inspiration (e.g. see Race and Makri, 2016) need to be enabled. We argue that understanding art historians’ information behaviour and needs in terms of accessing and using digital resources is necessary in order to design systems that can positively affect the whole scholarly workflow.

This study employed an ethnographic approach to the study of scholarly practices by conducting semi-structured, in-depth interviews with twenty art historians at different career stages, as well as observation of their physical and digital personal research collections in order to develop a sound understanding of their interaction with information at different stages of the research process. We were particularly interested in creating a pool of interviewees consisting of two groups; one where scholars worked on commonly studied areas (e.g. various areas of European art, like Renaissance art) or employed traditional art historical methods (e.g. stylistic analysis, historical investigation) and another where the topics examined (e.g. non-Western art, digital art) or the methods employed (e.g. quantitative, digital) were considered less traditional. Identifying any similarities and differences between these two different groups of scholars could provide a better insight into the needs that art historians in different areas of the field have in terms of resources and tools.

Accessing and interacting with digital libraries and resources was an important part of our participants’ daily work routine; in fact, most tended to start their research in the digital environment, an approach which was also found to facilitate serendipity and trigger new ideas for existing and future projects. Several studies have looked into the role of serendipity in scholarly practice and examined whether it can be supported by information systems (one of the most recent is that by Martin and Quan-Haase, 2017). For instance, Foster and Ford (2003: 337) studied serendipity in the context of the information seeking behaviour of interdisciplinary scholars and suggested that further examination is needed in order to understand that phenomenon which, as they argued, is “[…] a difficult concept to research since it is by definition not particularly susceptible to systematic control and prediction.”

Race and Makri (2016) examined the internal and external factors that facilitate serendipity, some of them often beyond the user’s control; these included aspects of the user’s personality, such as curiosity, and issues such as topical knowledge, time, communication or systemic characteristics. It should be noted that the authors highlighted the link that exists between creativity, serendipity and innovation, noting that ‘most of the same factors that encourage or discourage creativity and innovation encourage or discourage serendipity as well’ (Race and Makri, 2016: 16).

In this research, we discovered that serendipity was more likely to occur during the first stage of research, when scholars attempted to investigate a topic. At this stage, researchers tended to be more open to accidental information discoveries- a personal characteristic identified by Race and Makri (2016: 17) as necessary to experience serendipity- and the possibilities to find unexpected information that would significantly affect the research process were greater. On the other hand, during the later stages of research (e.g. writing stage), when creative behaviour was mostly related to the building of the research argument, information seeking behaviour was more goal oriented and the possibilities of experiencing a serendipitous discovery that would have a fundamental effect on the research process were fewer.

However, the fact that some areas of research were found to benefit from a larger pool of online resources (e.g. 19th century European art compared to Non-Western art) cannot be overlooked when considering the possibilities of discovering information serendipitously. This issue, then, generates questions regarding the extent to which information resources available online - even when including secondary material - meet the needs of scholars in the various sub-disciplinary areas of art history, like non-Western art. Actually, the art period that a project was looking at, the geographical focus of its subject (e.g. non-Western art) or the fact that the topic under investigation may have not been researched before were often connected to issues of availability of resources, conveniently accessible to scholars.

To conclude, as part of this paper we will report on the user requirements for designing systems that facilitate discovery, encourage creative use of information and trigger inspiration which will hopefully prove useful to information and other professionals supporting art historical scholarship. Thus, based on our participants’ reported experiences with digital libraries and resources, interfaces should be simple and the functionalities provided should encourage different types of searching. More specifically, given art historians frequent need to browse content in collections (e.g. when they are not sure what they are looking for) and to engage visually with information, digital resources targeted to this group of researchers should enable visual exploration of collections. This could be achieved through allowing users to get an overview of the material (or groups of information) in a collection, providing suggestions for similar content and offering services that facilitate intuitive interaction with information (e.g. zooming in-out, flicking through) (also see Shneiderman, 1996; Whitelaw, 2015). Apart from that, including related metadata alongside the digital objects in a collection as well as information on the decision-making process with regards to digitisation will enable scholars to make informed decisions when using digital content and gain necessary details for the purposes of their work. Finally, enabling access to digital collections through different means, including the ability to view and download material, is necessary in order to meet scholars’ evolving need to access and manage material across devices and tools.

Appendix A

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