UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Image description and Indigenous cultural heritage collections : an empirical analysis Jennings, Michele Lee


The purpose of this study is to compare models for image description with calls for self-determination and collaboration when considering online collections of Indigenous visual culture in the United States and Canada. Library and information studies models for providing subject access to images frequently draw upon Erwin Panofsky’s multi-level system for performing iconographical art historical analysis. Image description models, which rely on the Ofness and Aboutness of an image, threaten to impose a static meaning of an image rather than a dynamic interpretation that is indicative of traditional knowledge systems. Furthermore, discussions which stress expertise for effective image description and indexing prioritize Western epistemologies and bias-laden controlled vocabularies while the call for community collaboration in determining knowledge organization for Indigenous materials calls into question what counts as expertise and who is considered an expert. For library and museum professionals tasked with bridging the semantic gap inherent in translating image to text, the question remains whether effective image description is achievable, whether it can be done responsibly, and whether this is supported through best practices guidelines and controlled vocabularies. This study employs content analysis of image subject metadata for Indigenous visual culture from twenty case study libraries and museums to determine how images are being described as well as observation of institutional efforts to incorporate Indigenous voices and perspectives in institutional contexts. Additional data was gathered through questionnaires from cataloguers at each case. This study will examine not only the issues surrounding image indexing and description, but also organizational cultures and their effect on metadata creation, including differences in cataloguing depending on organizational context and professional values or modus operandi between museums and libraries. Additionally, the focus on Indigenous visual culture brings unique challenges and professional responsibilities that must be addressed. The goal of this study is not necessarily to reveal collections and institutions that do this most effectively, but to demonstrate the factors that make it possible to do so and to discover whether institutions can navigate the landscape of “best practices” in a way that is effective for users and responsible to the communities represented.

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