The Internet as a Research Medium for Art Historians

Leif Harmsen
April 1996

The internet has proven to be a useful new medium for academic research in many fields, including art history. Art historical discourse is typically conducted in pictures as well as text and is often conducted over great distances; to these ends the internet is particularly well suited. Art history can particularly benefit from both the "multimedia" capabilities of the digital domain and the global reach of the internet. Herein I discuss the usefulness of the internet as a research medium for art historians; its potential and some key examples of its current use.

I wanted to give the students full filmographies by the directors of films from which I was showing short clips. Thanks to the internet, I http'd to two web sites and downloaded all the info in a matter of minutes, reformatted it for my purposes, printed it out and had up-to-the-minute data on films that have barely hit the movie theaters. There is NO other way to do this.

Susan Denker (
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The world wide web is a method of serving texts, images and other digital objects that are kept on many computers across the internet. It represents a sea of inconsistent and unverified information from all corners of the world. While each web object has its own discreet universal resource locator (URL), this is where any uniform web-wide standard for organisation ends. There is no standard cataloguing system over the global network as there often is within particular institutions or a unified database structure. Consequently, the web is neither a graceful nor complete index of any kind. It does not replace research libraries or the Art Index, but it is another possible means to find relevant information that might not be at a local library or mentioned in any traditional index. For the good researcher the web is like the proverbial stone that must not be left unturned.

Fortunately, there are productive and convenient ways to search the web. A number of consolidated search utilities exist where anyone can register what they publish on the web. Some of these search utilities such as "Lycos" or "Alta Vista" use robots. These robots are special computer programs which visit any web site URL that is brought to their attention, and add whatever they expect might be relevant as an index entry to a central catalogue. Robots periodically return to previously indexed web sites to update their corresponding catalogue entries or, in the case that a site is no longer extant, remove its entry. Researchers can search these robot compiled catalogues on-line by keyword and get results that are ranked in order of presumed relevance. Because robots lack human discretion, they do not provide an intelligent index system that uses standard terms, nor can they differentiate between an author's name, a subject, a title, or anything else for that matter. When composing a keyword search query, a certain amount of creativity and statistical guile may be required to obtain the most useful results. Alta Vista allows the boolean operators AND OR and NOT, essential for any serious searching. Robot based search utilities do have the advantage of being more comprehensive, less ideologically biased and more up to date than manually maintained web catalogues.

Another kind of web search utility is the hierarchical catalogue by subject such as Yahoo. Yahoo can be searched by selecting from progressively more specific pick lists of subject headings until a list of related URLs with short descriptions are returned. Hierarchical searches tend to be less useful for art historical research than in searching for more easily categorised entities such as consumer goods. Because hierarchical indices must be compiled and updated manually, they tend to be very far from comprehensive and are more ideologically biased than robot compiled catalogues. It is a further drawback that their categorical structures are unlikely to have been produced by art historians.

There is some cross over between hierarchical and robot based web search utilities because you can search by keyword within a category of a hierarchical index such as Yahoo. You can also find extra indexes provided to work along side the results of robot based search utilities such as Infoseek. For instance, if you search for +Art+History in Infoseek, you will get your keyword search results as well as an option to look at the special list for Art History that people at Infoseek have compiled. The major web indices are normally supported by selling advertising space.

There also exist web sites of Art Historical links that have been compiled by individual academics. These can be used to locate many of the most important resources for art historians on the internet. The Art History Research Centre is produced by myself. Others indices compiled especially for Art Historians include Birkbeck College's WWW Virtual Library: Art History, Chris Whitcombe's chronological Art History Resources on the Web, and Andrew MidKiff's Mother of All Art History Links. One site that deserves special mention is Jonathan Bown's specialised WWW Virtual Library: Museums page which may well be the most comprehensive index of museums that are on-line. An accomplished more general arts information site is Markus Kruse's World Wide Arts Resources at The Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University. The people who maintain these web resource centres do so in part out of an interest in the development of the internet as a useful research tool for themselves, their colleagues and complete strangers.

From experience, the actual quantity and quality of art historical content that is stored on the internet is insubstantial compared to that which can be found in books and academic journals. As more content is developed and made available on-line, it will become more important that researchers check the net in addition to the traditional media which store information of interest to art historians. Particular research subjects may be represented on the web while other subjects which are as important may be neglected. For example, if you are searching for something on Yoraba sculpture, you are in luck: the catalogue for the recent exhibition Cutting to the Essence, Shaping for the Fire about Yoraba and Akan works in metal and wood is online. On the other hand, if you are searching the net for information about the 17th Century scenic painter Heinrick Avercamp, you will find a mere paragraph in Dutch at the Teylers Museum and two or three low resolution images.

There are indices and catalogues that are useful to art historians which can be consulted via the internet. These include the International Repertory of the Literature of Art (RILA) and the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals, both provided on line by the Getty Art History Information Program.

I am in charge of preparing lecture-introductions of people who come to Bochum..., I always collect their personal bibliographies by Internet-search in RILA. Formerly every search in about twenty volumes took me (although I think I am an experienced bibliographer) two hours. Now it is a quarter of an hour and probably more reliable.

Hubertus Kohle (

Some individuals have taken it upon themselves to provide smaller and more specialised catalogues or indices online such as Brief Biographies of American Architects which was transcribed from the American Art Annual by Earle Shettleworth, Jr., the director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. There are academic journal indices, similar to the art index but more general and much larger. Uncover is the best of these that is available to everyone. Uncover supports itself through its fax service whereby researchers can have any articles faxed to them for a fee. Browsing is free, and once any relevant article titles are discovered many can then be found at a local library. Most major libraries use an electronic catalogue for their collections and these are often available online via the internet. online library catalogues are of tremendous use when searching the catalogue of libraries to determine if and where a particular book or journal might be held. The many virtual book shops on the internet can further provide a wide selection books by mail order, and they sometimes offer better prices than local booksellers.
I was able to search for and find in just a matter of minutes, the out-of-print books that our librarian could not locate that I wanted to have on reserve for my classes. They were for sale on the Internet.... The ability to search library databases world-wide has been invaluable for my scholarship. I can plan research trips in advance, even reserve the books I wish to consult.

Susan Denker (
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Excellent pick-lists of the world's many online libraries and book shops are available on the web. The most comprehensive library list is Yale University's Online Library Catalogues of the world, organised by location. The International Federation of Libraries Association (IFLA) has produced a searchable International Directory of Art Libraries that represents over 3,000 institutions with specialised holdings in art, archaeology, and architecture. A number of key electronic reference indexes such as the Art Index and The Buildings of England index of Pevsner's famous Penguin series are not freely available via the internet because the publishers want to sell them in easily accountable CD-ROM or printed paper format.

If the internet contained only stored information it would be a promising yet merely marginal aid to serious art historical research. It is because there are fellow art historians on the internet that it has already an indispensable research tool. Email alone makes long distance correspondence with colleagues working all over the world not only possible, but very fast, simple and affordable.

My thesis research was based in Sienna, Italy and all my primary resources and contacts were there. I was fortunate that most of my colleagues in Sienna had access to the Internet. My friends checked folio numbers for me, walked around the corner to verify a certain architectural detail for me, or just gave me moral support on those long lonely days....without the Internet I could not have finished my work as readily or as inexpensively.

Mirella Cirfi Walton (, University of Toronto

On going art historical discussion with no geographic boundaries can take place by compiling lists of email addresses for mass electronic mailings. Mailing lists can be thought of as an extension of email whereby any message sent to the list address is forwarded directly to each subscriber's personal email address. The Consortium for Art and Architectural Historians (CAAH) is probably the single most useful art historical research resource on the internet. The CAAH is a mailing list with hundreds of members for the exchange of information concerning scholarship and research in the fields of art and architecture history.
Since I joined the CAAH mailing list I have received much important information from experts in our discipline. It is really exciting to find useful suggestions on Flemish art history (I am a graduate in Flemish Art) from Gary Schwartz in my mail-box. Email permits me to find much information in a very short time and above all, of excellent quality.

Irene Baldriga (, University of Rome

From the Medieval History List to the Media Arts List, a wide variety of electronic mailing lists exist as consortia for different subjects. If there is no list for your speciality you might consider starting one for yourself and your colleagues!
Several members of the Peter Greenaway Mailing List have, for the last three months, focused their attention on an analysis of Greenaway's 1980 film The Falls'.... the film was particularly suited to collective analysis. For a while members were mainly concerned to 'spot the reference'. However, we moved on to consider a bewildering variety of subjects - for example, geography, music, biography, ornithology, metafiction, etc. Often, a member would volunteer to look into a specific issue and post their findings.... Using the material generated by our discussion, the mailing list's host has decided to establish a WWW page which should open in the near future.

Paul Melia (, Staffordshire University

There is no comprehensive list of mailing lists, but Tile-net is a web site with searchable, well organised and complete information on many mailing lists from all disciplines.

Newsgroups are similar to mailing lists but are more public in function. News is not sent to you as email; it is a virtual bulletin board that can be browsed with a newsreader program. Of the over 10,000 newsgroups there are a handful which cater to the arts. and rec.arts.fine are both general arts discourse newsgroups, the latter is moderated. Other more specialised newsgroups such as alt.postmodern or alt.religion.buddhism.tibetan may be useful depending on the topic of research.

[For a] class where we discuss contemporary issues in the art world, I was able to provide instant news from a variety of sources on the arrests of artists in NYC for "vagrancy" -- displaying their art on the sidewalks of SOHO. We were also able to read lengthy discussions of the arguments for and against freedom of electronic speech that arose around the controversy of Nazi web sites.

Susan Denker (
School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Posted news items are listed by their subject headings. These short headings can be searched for particular strings of text. For instance, I might search the alt.censorship newsgroup regularly for "Canad" in order to find any recent developments to do with Canadian censorship or censorship in Canada.

When using newsgroups or mailing lists, the best way to procure information relevant to your research is to simply ask for it. Specific requests for information are an excellent means to find an important fax number, contact, resource, or simply to get a variety of opinions on a particular issue. To make a request, post your query to the appropriate mailing list or newsgroup with a specific and concise subject heading that begins with "REQ:". It is by this method that I have collected most of the quotes in this essay.

The web can be a useful research tool, depending on what you are looking for. The content on the web is lacking in substance partly because there is little or no monetary incentive involved as there is when publishing books, CDs or magazine articles. Further, the web is still relatively new so much of its potential, arts exhibition catalogues for example, is only just starting to be used. More useful are the indices that are searchable on line such as the RILA Index, library catalogues, uncover and other indices. Most useful are email, mailing lists and newsgroups. It is less the sea of digitally stored content and more the daily discourse between colleagues that makes the internet an indispensable aid to today's art history researchers.


The Art History Research Centre is produced by Leif Harmsen.