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MPhil/PhD Research proposal

The following is the text of my research proposal for the MPhil/PhD programme at Kingston University's School of Information Systems Design in 1997.

I left the programme when I left employment with the Surrey Institute at the end of 1998, both because the Surrey Institute (quite understandably) didn't feel inclined to pay my tuition fees anymore, and also because I was in the process of moving to the United States.

Despite the cheesy title, I still think the research aims are valid, which is why I've made the text of the proposal available.

Questions in Art:

A proposal for an investigation into the systematisation of the information needs of researchers in the visual arts

Tony Gill
January 1997

Research objectives

The proposed research project will contribute to the body of knowledge pertaining to the needs of scholarly users of contemporary and future information systems across a specific subject domain, which can broadly be termed ‘the visual arts’, by analysing the information requirements, search methodologies and ‘world view’ of visual art students in UK Higher Education, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

By synthesising the specific needs of the visual arts research community with research findings into user needs from other disciplines (for example information science, cognitive science, education theory and human-computer interaction), a framework for classifying information requirements in the visual arts will be formulated and validated.

Once the underlying information requirements are more explicitly understood, more traditional issues of information systems design, such as the most appropriate methods for storing, structuring, sorting and indexing information, will be more readily addressed; questions like ‘how should this information be structured?’, ‘what metadata is needed to describe this information?’, ‘what level of vocabulary control should be applied?’, ‘how should this information space be presented to the user’ and ‘how useful is query by image content?’ can then be more coherently and authoritatively answered.

In addition, the elicitation of a ‘world view’ from the academic visual arts community in the context of information systems will illustrate the effectiveness with which HE institutions currently equip their students and staff with the teaching and learning skills to take advantage of increasingly-available electronic resources.

Through a better understanding of the information needs of users, the designers of the next generation of information systems will be more likely to design and build systems that meet those needs:


“We need to understand the ecology of the questions. Examining the questions provides insight into structuring the answers.”[1]


Initially the proposed scope of the research will be consistent with that of the Visual Arts Data Service, which itself is a subset of the subject areas covered by the Art, Design, Architecture & Media Information Gateway:

  • Fine Art, including painting, prints and drawings, sculpture and other contemporary media including those using technology.
  • Design, including industrial, product, fashion, graphic, packaging, interior design.
  • Architecture, including landscape design, but excluding building construction.
  • Applied Arts, including textiles, ceramics, glass, metals, jewellery, furniture.
  • History and Criticism, historical, philosophical and contextual studies relating to the visual arts.
  • Museum Studies and Conservation, where appropriate to the visual arts community.
  • Professional Practice, related to any of the above.

Since this is a wide range of relatively independent subject areas, it may prove necessary in the later stages of the research to restrict the scope of more detailed analysis to a subset of the above list.

Context for research

Traditionally, academic researchers have turned to academic libraries when searching for information. They were aided in their searching by subject librarians, who combined knowledge of the subject area with the long-established information management tools and methods of librarianship to organise, catalogue, index, categorise and retrieve physical materials such as books, journals, slides, photographs, videos and ephemera.

Researchers in the visual arts have also been able to take advantage of other managed collections of information resources, such as those curated by museums and galleries:


“Humanists depend to a very considerable extent upon libraries, both in their own and other institutions, and upon a network of museums, galleries and archives.”[2]

However, recent developments in information technology, notably the massive expansion of the global Internet and in particular the World Wide Web, in conjunction with continually falling (in comparative terms) costs, have instigated a shift towards the more diverse and unstructured environment of networked electronic information.

In practical terms, the Internet is an unbounded and eclectic information space that is changing and growing in an uncoordinated, almost organic manner. It comprises a wide range of object types, many of which can be searched using a plethora of disparate but increasingly interoperable information systems.

However, there is little structural consistency across these information resources, since previous attempts at creating standardised information structures have usually taken place within specific institutions, or at best within specific subject disciplines.

This rapid, fragmentary expansion is causing the widespread breakdown of many existing models and paradigms that pertain to the way we interact with information.

For example, Ellman (1996), cited in Lindsay[3], suggests the following as the traditional over-simplified description of the information retrieval model:

  1. There is a large collection of documents
  2. A searchable index is created from this collection
  3. A user has a fixed requirement for information
  4. By querying the index the document that contains the information can be found

It is arguable whether this model has ever been of any use in describing anything but the most conceptually simple information retrieval scenarios, but clearly it bears very little resemblance to the current information environment encountered by the Internet user.

Perhaps the most serious error made by the simple model of information retrieval, however, is that the user has a fixed requirement for knowledge. This counter-intuitive notion, the myth of the information system user with well-formulated queries, is repeatedly being dispelled across diverse disciplines:


"[There are] some unrealistic assumptions about users and the nature of information seeking - e.g. that users have unbounded rationality, have static and well-defined information needs, know what they want and are output oriented ..."[4]

“Users seek information that is unknown, often not knowing what they want until it is seen. Systems must allow for gaps and messiness. People need assistance to access information. Museums need to provide information about the resources they offer, along with connections to other relevant resources.”[5]

There is certainly a lack of knowledge about the information needs of users in the visual arts, whether the information is being supplied by an art library or a museum/gallery:


“There have been few studies to date that have dealt with the users of art historical libraries and institutions in Europe and none that have dealt exclusively with photographic art libraries.”[6]

“There seem to have been surprisingly few attempts to answer the question: What access do users want? One cannot but be struck by the contrast between all the publicity about investment in IT for media access and the poverty of information about simple things like the questions people ask and who asks them."[7]

 “The participants at all four seminars were unanimous on one point: not enough is known about the demand for collections information, nor about what forms such information should take in order to meet the needs of the diverse range of potential users.”[8]

The only significant work done to date in the field of museum users’ information needs are the Catechism project by the National Museums of Scotland and the Points of View project by the Getty Art History Information Program and the Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information: Both pointed to the need for further research:


“We hope that further surveys may be carried out and that the actual, as opposed to imagined, use of information in museums will be more closely examined.”[9]

“The Points of View project also hopes to continue to learn through its ongoing research agenda which calls for:

1.     Gathering more information about the questioners, their questions, and their intended uses of the information […]”[10]

This research project will thus contribute towards the construction of a body of knowledge for which there is a demonstrable demand.


The author of this proposal is currently employed by The Surrey Institute of Art & Design to manage the development of two national JISC-funded services, the Art, Design, Architecture & Media Information Gateway (ADAM) and the Visual Arts Data Service (VADS).

The nature of this research is closely linked to the evaluation activities required to develop these complimentary services, and will benefit from generous financial and technical resources in addition to a rich spectrum of affiliations with the user community.

ADAM is a project to develop a UK-based information gateway to quality-assured networked resources in art, design, architecture and media. This will be achieved by creating a WWW-based database of metadata describing networked resources that have been evaluated and catalogued to agreed standards. The ADAM Project is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee of the UK Higher Education Funding Councils as part of its £15 million Electronic Libraries programme.

The Visual Arts Data Service, an agency of the Arts & Humanities Data Service, will provide the UK Higher Education community with access to networked electronic research data in the visual arts, following consultation with relevant constituencies in order to develop, promote and implement standards for best practice in data creation, collection, description, delivery and preservation.

The evaluation of the two services will generally conform to the guidelines for the evaluation of Electronic Libraries Programme projects produced by the Tavistock Institute, and will therefore make use of the following methods for gathering information about users and their needs:

  • User survey questionnaires
  • Stakeholder workshops
  • User observation
  • Structured interviews
  • Focus group discussion
  • Unstructured/unsolicited user feedback
  • Query logging
  • WWW server log statistics

Since the elicitation of information about users is being undertaken by other initiatives and disciplines, background research will also be undertaken to establish the findings of such studies, and to cross-reference the findings with those generated by the proposed research project.

Background research into pertinent information systems design theory and practice will also be undertaken.

Progress reports will be submitted to the research supervisor via e-mail on a fortnightly basis. Meetings with the supervisor will take place at least every two months.

Research plan

Studies that will contribute to the proposed research project commenced in February 1996, and are anticipated to take place over a 4-year period from this date. A plan scheduling the major stages in the research project are show in the table below:




ADAM 1996 Survey of User Information Needs & Search Methods

Feb 96

Sep 96

ADAM user query and web server traffic logging

Mar 96

Nov 98

Collection of unsolicited ADAM feedback

Feb 96

Nov 98

ADAM workshop for ARLIS, evaluation by questionnaire

Sep 96

Sep 96

Group discussion with Surrey Institute academic staff

Nov 96

Nov 96

Background reading into user needs studies*

Feb 97

Jan 99

Background research into information systems design*

Feb 97

Jan 99

ADAM/VADS/AHDS/UKOLN visual arts & museums metadata workshop

Feb 97

Feb 97

ADAM consultation phase II training workshops & focus group discussions

Mar 97

Nov 97

VADS evaluation stage I, stakeholder workshops & focus group discussions

Mar 97

Feb 98

Student library induction shadowing

Sep 97

Dec 97

ADAM consultation phase III training workshops, user observation, interviews & focus group discussions

Dec 97

Nov 98

Draft framework for modelling user information needs produced*

Mar 98

Sep 98

Transition from Mphil to PhD programme*

May 98

Aug 98

VADS evaluation stage II, stakeholder workshops & focus group discussions

Mar 98

Feb 99

Draft framework compared against users & user queries*

Oct 98

Jan 99

Dissertation write-up*

Feb 99

Mar 00

* Additional to ADAM/VADS evaluation activities

The majority of the research will be conducted as part of the formative and summative evaluation activities of both ADAM and VADS; ADAM is funded until December 1998, and VADS is funded until February 2000.

Evaluation activities for ADAM to date have already yielded significant findings that have helped to shape the service’s development plan and will contribute to the proposed research project:

  • A detailed survey using questionnaires into the current information-seeking behaviour of the stakeholder community was carried out over much of 1995, and yielded 710 valid responses; the report of the survey findings is available from the ADAM web site.
  • A training workshop for a delegation from ARLIS (the Art Libraries Society) yielded 21 evaluation sheets with both quantitative and qualitative feedback results.
  • A focus group discussion took place with three members of the academic staff at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design.
  • From the outset, users of the ADAM gateway have been encouraged to provide unstructured feedback about both their needs and the usefulness of the current service in meeting them.
  • In addition, both users’ query expressions and WWW server traffic have been logged automatically since the Spring of 1995.

Future evaluation activities will be expanded to include the VADS, and will result in additional research material from training workshops, focus group discussions, interviews, user observation, automated logging of users’ queries and unstructured feedback.

Additional studies beyond the scope of the evaluation activities for ADAM and VADS will also be required. Regular literature and Internet searches will be carried out to assess the current state of research into information systems design and the modelling of users’ information needs in other disciplines, following which pertinent work will be examined.

A selection of 1st year undergraduate visual arts students will be shadowed as they undergo library and information retrieval training inductions at several HE institutions, to gain an insight into the current provision of training in the use of electronic resources for teaching and learning.

A draft framework for modelling users’ information needs will be produced and validated through comparative analysis against the users and user queries.

A dissertation detailing the research will be written between February 1999 and March 2000.

[1] Sledge, Jane & Case, Mary “Looking for Mr. Rococo: Getty Art History Information Program Point-Of-View Workshop” p127 Archives & Museum Informatics Volume 9 Number 1, Archives & Museum Informatics 1995

[2] British Library Research & Development Department & The British Academy, Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship: British Achievements, Prospects and Barriers p30, Office of Humanities Communication 1993

[3] Lindsay, John “The document does not bark!”

[4] Chang, Shan-ju & Rice, Ronald E. "Browsing: a multidimensional framework" p 233, Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 28, 1993

[5] Sledge, Jane “Points of View” pp338-339 ICHIM ’95 / MCN ’95: Multimedia Computing and Museums, Archives & Museum Informatics 1995

[6] Hourihane, Colum “The Van Eyck Project, Information Exchange in Art Libraries” p27, Computers and the History of Art Volume 5 Part 1, Harwood Academic Publishers 1995

[7] Orna, Elizabeth “In The Know” Museums Journal Volume 94 Number 11, November 1994, Museums Association 1994

[8] Gosling, Kevin “The Nation’s Collections: are we virtually there?” p7, MDA Information Volume 2 Number 2, September 1996, The Museum Documentation Association 1996

[9] McCorry, Helen & Morrison, Ian O. Report on the Catechism Project p8, National Museums of Scotland 1995

[10] Sledge, Jane “Points of View” p346 ICHIM ’95 / MCN ’95: Multimedia Computing and Museums, Archives & Museum Informatics 1995



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