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Volume 25, No. 6

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August / September 1999



A Typology for Visual Collections

by James M. Turner

At the annual workshop on classification research at the 1997 ASIS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC, breakout groups on various topics were formed. The discussion of the group covering visual information was led by Corinne Jörgensen. The group identified the need for some kind of typology of visual collections in order to gain an understanding of the nature of the organization of such material. It was noted that within the field of information science, activity centers very much on the organization of text-based materials, and rightly so. However, there is a perception, within institutions and within the field in general, that visual information is less serious, less important than text-based information; that its primary role is as support material; and that it is often associated with entertainment and non-scholarly pursuits. This perception is associated with the (defensible) notion that since librarians and information scientists have much more experience with text than with pictures, scarce resources are better used if they are devoted to managing textual information. These factors contribute to the tendency to lump all picture collections into a single category of materials (other than text), then to devote resources to organizing these collections only as a lesser priority, to relegate them to wish lists or simply to ignore them.

There was a consensus among the members of the breakout group concerning the need to describe the world of visual collections in greater detail in order to gain an understanding of its richness and complexity and to help explain it to others. The most useful way to accomplish these goals seemed to be to construct a typology of visual collections as a way of exploding this general category and of identifying some of the kinds of collections that exist.

About this time, a new doctoral program in information science had been approved at the School for Library and Information Sciences at the Université de Montréal, and three people among the first group of doctoral students accepted into the program were interested in pursuing topics in the organization of visual information. The problem of constructing a typology for picture collections was proposed as part of the course work for these three students, and the work was carried out as part of a research seminar. The intellectual work of elaborating the typology proved to be rather more complex than expected because the group quickly realized that simply listing the types of collections in existence was far from enough.

The typology was crafted starting from brainstorming sessions in which all GRIV (Groupe départemental de recherche en information visuelle [Visual Information Research Group]) members participated. Once the main modules had been identified and the basic relationships among them established, responsibility for researching each module was assigned to an individual member. Documentation available in the school's library science library, on the Web, and other sources such as other libraries and private collections was consulted to help in filling out the various categories and lists. It was quickly clear that exhaustive lists could become infinitely long in some cases. Thus the principle of providing enough information to establish the existence of the category and to give examples of membership in the category was adopted. The guiding principle was to be representative, but not exhaustive.

The final product was a chart depicting the World of Visual Collections in French and English (see sidebar.) Material gathered by individual members was pooled, and the group made decisions about what to include in the poster constructed to represent the typology. In the chart, the major modules gravitate around a representation of responsibility for collections. Since the chart cannot meaningfully be reduced for reproduction here, the conceptual structure of the English version has been extracted in Figure 1. This figure shows the major modules with a few examples of the items included when the module name alone is not sufficient definition.

As a note: since the GRIV group works in French, the French-language version of the typology should be considered the "official" version, and the English-language version a translation and adaptation. There are a few discrepancies between the two. For example, the list of Crafts in French includes Charpentier, Èbéniste, and Menuisier, and these are reduced to Cabinetmaker and Carpenter in English, the nuances reflecting the organization of these crafts in the cultures using each language.

Four major modules of the world of collections emerged:

    • Types of institutions that house collections. One institution can have a single collection, large or small, or its mandate can include managing several visual collections as well as other types of collections.
    • Types of users and uses of visual collections, since use is such an important factor in determining how collections should be organized.
    • The activities associated with creating and organizing collections.
    • Types of images, including types of picture-making techniques, as well as some classification of the way pictures are consulted, with and without the aid of machines because collections are often organized in terms of the production techniques used for making the pictures.

In addition, we identified aspects of the management of visual collections that cut across the facets and interact with each other in complex ways. These conditions are easily illustrated with the facilities of space and color on the chart, but are less easily described verbally. These cross-cutting aspects center around responsibility for collections, as mentioned above, and also they include the following:

  • Intellectual aspects
  • Physical aspects
  • Institutional aspects
  • User aspects

Thus the actual question of the types of collections of visual materials ended up being treated as only one of many facets of the overall portrait of the world of visual collections. Following is a description of the kinds of information included in the various modules of the typology.

Personal or Institutional Entities

A number of facets are covered in the section pertaining to the entities that collect images, which corresponds also largely to the institutional aspects of responsibility for collections. In addition to public/private and level facets, the typology contains lengthy, though by no means exhaustive, lists of

  • kinds of sponsoring institutions (for instance, publishers);
  • types of physical collections (e.g., slide libraries); and
  • specific collectors.


The method used for identifying the kinds of professions that make use of picture collections involved consulting a (Canadian) federal government classification of employment categories. The list is rather long. The broad categories, which have divisions and sometimes subdivisions, include architects and engineers; artistic, literary, performing arts; crafts; library; museum and archival sciences; teaching; recreation; media; health; natural sciences; social sciences and humanities; security; personal services; book production; and transportation. Some examples of the perhaps less-obvious employment categories: marine engineer, traffic engineer, publicist, organ maker, painting restorer, dentist, demographer, astronomer, volcanologist, tatoo artist, hairdresser, navigator. A related list is of types of uses of images and includes study and analysis; information searching; projection; reproduction; buying and selling; and exhibiting.


Graphic Presentation

  A research group entitled Groupe départemental
  de recherche en information visuelle (Visual
  Information Research Group) has been formed at
  the school of library and information sciences at
  the Université de Montréal. The group was able
  to make an arrangement whereby a student
  finishing a degree program in graphic arts at the
  Université du Québec à Montréal was recruited
  to design a poster displaying the results of the
  project, as well as a logo for the research group,
  in exchange for credit in her program. A small
  research budget was obtained to cover the costs
  of printing the 36 x 24 poster in five colors, and
  on two sides, one in English, one in French. The
  poster is entitled The World of Visual

  The graphic presentation of the GRIV poster
  shows colored spheres, each color representing
  an aspect of the typology. The categories are
  responsibility for collections, intellectual aspects,
  physical aspects, institutional aspects and user
  aspects. The spheres suggest the molecular
  nature of the facets, and one can imagine various
  molecule packages being made up from the
  numerous available combinations of various
  aspects from each category. Each aspect takes
  up a particular area of the poster, and an attempt
  is made to show interactions between the areas,
  through the central function of responsibility for

Finally, there is a section dealing with the activities of those responsible for the collections. The Activities list includes Acquisition, Selection, Dissemination and Restoration. A related list, called Intellectual Organization, includes cataloguing, classification and indexing. Another related list, called Mandates and Responsibilities, includes collection; exhibition and display; and preservation. For simplicity, these have been compiled into a single list in Figure 1 .


The section on images shows types of images such as news pictures, caricatures, religious images, scientific pictures, etc., as a first division. This list has a subsection for still images, moving images and animation, and another for 2D and 3D images. Next, there is a division by the way images are consulted, either directly or through the use of machines. These sections are called Direct Consultation and Mediated Consultation. Direct Consultation has a subdivision of 2D supports, examples of which are posters, banners, drawings, icons, wallpaper, and so on; and a subdivision of 3D supports, examples of which include lampshades, ceramics, medals, T-shirts, etc. As with the list of types of collecting institutions, the content of these lists represents a number of examples, again with no claim to exhaustivity. Indeed, an exhaustive list of 3D supports which are potential carriers of images would be infinitely long. The section on Mediated Consultation has subdivisions for films, magnetic supports, optical supports, magneto-optical supports, consumer formats and other. This latter subdivision includes autochromes, daguerreotypes and lantern slides.

Finally, the typology should be considered only a first pass at describing the world of visual collections. The GRIV group is aware that a number of other ways to organize and present the information could have been used and that the examples used to illustrate each category could be very different from those chosen. However, it is felt that a serious reflection on this interesting problem and an in-depth discussion of it have been achieved. In addition, the group succeeded in producing a graphic representation of the typology which can be used to study and explain the great diversity and complexity of the world of visual collections. The typology, in the form of the poster the group produced, was presented for the first time at the 1998 ASIS Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh and has been shown in other contexts since then. The GRIV group welcomes your comments for clarifying or re-organizing the information in the poster. Copies of the poster can be obtained on a cost-recovery basis by contacting the author, james.turner@umontreal.ca..

FIGURE 1. The World of Visual Collections



Personal or Institutional (collecting) Entities





By public/private
  By level
  local, national,

By type of institution or sponsor
  artists, libraries,
  newspapers and

By physical organization
  art libraries, slide
  libraries, film

By collector
  Library of Congress
  Netherlands Film
  Time-Life Syndicate

By type of use

By profession or status
  artist, cabinet maker,
  engineer, biologist










Intellectual Organization



Exhibition and display



By type
  By genre or purpose
  comic strips,
  religious images,
  By moving/stil
  By 2D/3D

By technique
  chalk, watercolor
  mezzotint, ultra-
  sound scan

By type of consultation
  Direct, by support
  bags, paintings,
  wallpaper, costumes,
  holograms, pottery
  Mediated, by support
  film strips, x-rays,

Mandate or responsibility

User aspects

Physical aspects

Institutional aspects




















James M. Turner is professeur adjoint [assistant professor] in the Ècole de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l'information at the Université de Montréal. He can be reached by e-mail at james.turner@umontreal.ca



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@ 1999, American Society for Information Science