Adrienne Montgomerie & Cheryl Stephens—How and what to edit in visuals accompanying text (Editing Goes Global, 2015)

According to Editors Canada’s Professional Editorial Standards, a proficient editor should know how to “ensure that all tables, photos, multimedia, and other visual elements are clear and effectively convey the intended meaning” (Standard C5). But clear and effective how, and by what standard? Veteran editor Adrienne Montgomerie and plain language champion Cheryl Stephens took us through their thoughts on the topic.

Visual are only going to get more important, because research shows that we learn faster and retain more when we see an image, compared with text. Visuals can explain and convey concepts and relationships that would take a long time to explain—for example, cutaway diagrams can effectively convey internal structure. “Text was a fad,” said Montgomerie, only half-joking. “It had a good life, but now we have the means to communicate in other ways.” Visuals are processed in a different part of the brain than text, which is only one of eight ways people communicate and learn. In plain language communications, said Stephens, we should aim to use visuals more than text, although neither should stand alone.

When using visuals, figure out the motivation behind them and the intended audience and message, because different media and styles—photographs, line illustrations, graphs, etc.—have different purposes. Visuals should not be afterthoughts: work closely with designers from the outset and throughout the developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading stages to ensure that together, the text and visuals communicate clearly. Make sure, too, that the typography is appropriate and readable.

Graphics should emphasize and complement your main point. They draw attention, so to readers will interpret what they illustrate as important. For informational documents, such as textbooks, don’t use a visual for decoration just because you have it. Graphics should help you understand text or be understood on its own.

Be conscious of the psychological effect of colour, which signifies that something is important. More generally, be aware of the symbolism or connotations of not only colours (for example, red meaning stop and green meaning go) but also icons, which should be unambiguous in their meaning. Icons can be misleading if they run counter to culturally accepted meanings. Use familiar approaches if you can, and if you can’t, justify your choices.

Titles and captions should make a claim that your visual proves, so make sure the image accurately reflects the data. Keep the target audience’s level of knowledge in mind when including and captioning an image. A captioned image should ideally stand on its own. Montgomerie has posted a checklist of what to look for when editing captions, She and Stephens suggest using an active verb in the caption.

Finally, Montgomerie repeated what is one of my own mantras: always proof in the final medium.

Montgomerie and Stephens recommend consulting Editing by Design by Jan White for more information about the effects of different ways to combine images and text. If you’re interested in learning more about charts, read my summary of Laurel Hyatt’s presentation (“The chart clinic”) at the 2013 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. For more in-depth information about data visualization, a good place to start is Alberto Cairo’s book, The Functional Art, which I reviewed a few years ago.


UPDATE (June 17, 2015): Adrienne Montgomerie has posted her own summary and comprehensive checklists for the substance, style, and quality of visual elements.

Preservation Week at the UBC Library—Part I

The American Library Association is celebrating its second annual Preservation Week, and UBC Library has been taking part by offering a series of public lectures and webinars. I’ve taken in a couple of them so far, and although they’re only tangentially related to publishing, I thought I’d still share a few of the tidbits I’ve learned.

UBC Library and digitization

Robert Stibravy of UBC Library’s Digitization Centre gave us a tour of some of their digitization equipment.


The TTI is a reprographic copy stand: it has a large surface equipped with a vacuum that can keep documents flat (even those that have been rolled up or folded), along with an overhead 48-megapixel digital camera that can be moved up and down and can accommodate a zoom or telephoto lens, depending on the size of the material. The TTI can image items up to 40 inches by 60 inches, and it can take multiple shots of each pixel, isolating each colour, which allows for excellent colour reproduction. LEDs illuminate the work from an angle, so it’s possible to image a framed work without taking the item out of the frame and without glare from the glass.

The Contex

The Contex looks a bit like a wide-format printer or plotter, but it’s actually a scanner, accommodating material up to 54 inches wide;  it uses a row of light sources and feeds the material through. Whereas the TTI’s single-camera setup means that a very large image can have minute aberrations at its fringes, the Contex has no aberration issues and is ideal for materials such as maps, where the representations must be absolutely accurate.

The Atiz

The Atiz is a cradle (V-shaped) scanner used for bound material such as books. It’s typically used to scan fragile books, because it can capture images from a book without damaging it. You have to turn the page manually to scan each spread, so scanning a rare book with the Atiz is slow process. “But for rare materials,” said Stibravy, “The material always comes first.”

Flatbed scanners

High-end Epson 10000XL flatbed scanners are the stalwarts of the Digitization Centre; they’re used to image more than all other machines combined, and they produce excellent images.

The flexScan

A lot of material to be digitized is in microfilm or microfiche. The flexScan by nextScan is used to scan various sizes of microfiche. Among the Digitization Centre’s projects is the digitization of small-town newspaper microfiche, from the B.C. archives in Victoria. These documents are of enormous historical value, because “back in the day, that was the main vehicle of communication,” said Stibravy.

He also told us about a project launched by Library and Archives Canada in collaboration with Canadiana to digitize microfilm of the Canada Treaty Series and Parliamentary debates. Many of those records are hand-written, and the partner organizations will solicit help to transcribe them once they’ve all been scanned.

The Fujitsu fi-6670A

This high-speed document scanner can scan ninety pages per minute duplex and accommodates pages as small as a business card and as large as tabloid newspaper pages. One project that the Digitization Centre uses it for is to digitize a series of laboratory notebooks for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. These notebooks contain a historical record of fish populations—information that will be essential to managing fisheries.

Other equipment

The Digitization Centre keeps older equipment, such as a ReVox reel-to-reel tape deck, to digitize legacy media. “Old-school” material, as Stibravy calls is, “is in dire need of digitization.”


Almost all of the textual material that the Digitization Centre images is sent through an OCR process. The Digitization Centre’s workflow and excellent OCR software (Abbyy) allow for a high recognition rate (mid- to high 90 percent). After OCR the texts become searchable.


Sarah Romkey, archivist for Rare Books and Special Collections, and Bronwen Sprout, the library’s digital initiatives coordinator, took the stage to explain some of the library’s digital preservation work.

People think digitization is a way of preserving print material, but digital preservation is its own complex beast with a unique set of  preservation challenges. It involves the “active management of digital information over time to ensure its accessibility” including well-thought-out policies that take into account the long-term impact of changes in technology.

UBC Library began developing its current digital strategy in 2011, in conjunction with Artefactual Systems. Their digital preservation tools include archivematica, an “open-source system designed to maintain standards-based long-term access to collections of digital objects,” as well as AtoM, an open-source web-based archival description software that allows people to search through digital archives and find what they need.

Romkey was also involved with developing policies and procedures for born-digital materials—which start life as digital objects and may never become print objects. One of the tenets of archiving is the concept of “original order”: the order of photos in a box or album, for example, offers important context. On storage media like CDs, however, or on legacy media such as floppy disks, original order is harder to pin down, because files can be sorted and stored in any number of configurations. To prevent the machine used to read the digital files from renaming and rearranging them, the digital preservation team has to use a write blocker to preserve their order.

The team also has to grapple with intellectual property issues. The digital rights to the materials has to be confirmed with the copyright holders. Some donors would like the library to provide access to the material but retain copyright, for example. The library has had to develop a donor agreement to deal with digital copyright.

Sprout mentioned also that an ongoing consideration of the digital preservation strategy was to integrate the growing archives into the library’s existing systems, such as the institutional repository, cIRcle.


Low-cost ways to preserve family archives

Karen E. K. Brown, preservation librarian for the University at Albany, SUNY, University Libraries, gave a talk via webinar on preserving family archives.

Preventing damage, she stressed, is far preferable to repairing damage, so it’s important to develop good storage and handling practices.

Family archives matter because they “tell the story of who we are,” said Brown, and give future generations “a record of where they came from.” Family archives can also be an important part of the community’s history.

Family archives—usually a collection of original letters, reports, notes, photographs, etc.—provide historical evidence and data about the person who created them. They may have sentimental value, of course, but some might also have financial value (such as a deed on a parcel of land). They provide proof that an event occurred and might even explain how.

Before storing the archives, Brown said, take some time to organize and document them. On separate pieces of paper, note what you know about each item: for a photograph, who is in the photo, who took it, when and where it was taken; for a letter, who wrote it, who received it, where sender and recipient lived, and when it was sent. Avoid taking notes on the original, if possible; if you absolutely have to, make light, small notes in pencil only. Whenever possible, respect the material’s original order. Diligent organization and labelling can prevent information from getting scattered or misidentified.

The main ways to protect your collections are to:

  • control the environment
  • use the right type of enclosures
  • handle the material as little and as carefully as possible
  • use copies rather than originals

You might also consider how to protect your collections in emergencies.

The environment

Temperature and relative humidity are the two biggest environmental risks. For every 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5.6 degrees Celsius), the rate of deterioration doubles. If the humidity is too high, you might encourage mould growth; too low, and leathers and adhesives may dry out. In general, avoid extremes; ideal conditions are 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 18 degrees Celsius) and a relative humidity of 30 to 40 per cent. Practically speaking, these conditions are pretty hard to achieve, so just do what you can. Avoid storing your archives in basements, which are prone to flooding and are notorious for humidity, or attics, which can harbour pests and may get very hot in the summer. Store them in the central part of your home in suitable enclosures, and keep your home cool. Measures like sealing cracks in windows and walls and using insulated curtains, as well as dehumidifying damp areas, will not only preserve your archives but also boost the efficiency of your home.

Light is also a major environmental risk; visible and UV light can cause fading and discolouration and can cause materials to become brittle. This damage is permanent and irreversible. Limit your archives’ exposure to light. Display copies if you can, while keeping originals in the dark. Use low-wattage bulbs with dimmers. Incandescent and LED bulbs are preferable to fluorescents, which put out a lot of UV. You can use UV-filtering Plexiglas, but it’s expensive, and the protection doesn’t last forever.

To protect your archives from dirt and dust, which may scratch, be acidic, or act as food sources for pests, regularly dust and vacuum. Vacuums with HEPA filters are best, and heating systems should also be properly filtered.

Storing and handling archives

Never repair items with pressure-sensitive tapes or commercial adhesives, even if they claim to be archival. Segregate acidic items like newspaper clippings or faxes. Remove all paper clips, pins, rubber bands, etc. View your collection items in a clean area, using clean hands.

When caring for books, shelve them fully upright, using bookends if you need to. Oversize books can be shelved spine down (never spine up) or flat. Don’t pull books out from the head cap, and don’t fold over page corners or use Post-It notes. Store books closed.

For documents, hanging files in a filing cabinet are best. Boxes should be sturdy, chemically stable and have snug lids. If using plastic, opt for polyester, polyethylene, or polypropylene and “avoid anything that has a funny smell,” said Brown. Using folders rather than envelopes to store documents minimizes the chances that you’ll damage them when you insert or extract them. Avoid using coloured folders, which can transfer colour to the documents. Any enclosures like envelopes and folders should be acid free and lignin free (lignin is a component of tree bark that can acidify paper and cause discolouration). Buffered paper—which is slightly basic—is also available, but don’t use buffered paper with colour-sensitive documents like blueprints.

For photos, the best enclosures are those that have passed the Photographic Activity Test. Don’t use plastic sleeves if you’re storing photos in high-humidity areas. For albums, use mounting corners, not self-adhesive or magnetic albums. Preserve albums intact whenever possible and store them in boxes.

Oversize collections should be stored flat whenever possible. If you do have to fold, fold items like newspapers along the original centre fold. Stack newspapers in fitted boxes in chronological order. If you have to roll, use the double-tube method: roll it around one tube, secure it with tissue paper and cotton tying tape, then place it into a larger tube capped at both ends, to prevent the item from being crushed.

For AV materials, handle grooved and optical discs by the edges or the centre hole and open reel and magnetic tape by the edges or outer shell. Don’t touch the spools. If it’s deteriorating badly, consult a conservation specialist to get the content copied to new media.

Framing items for home display

People think that framing something is preserving it, but if you’re using adhesives and acidic backing and exposing the item to light, you could be accelerating its deterioration. If you do frame an item, always use 100% cotton mattes and mounting boards. Use a window matte so that the item isn’t in direct contact with the glass. Never use spray adhesives. Don’t fold or cut the item to get it to fit. Keep all original labels. For the best results, consult a conservator for help. When you display your items, hang them in interior rooms, away from heat sources. The mantle may not be the best place to display your family’s treasures.

Prepare for emergencies

When going through your archives, identify ones that are essential:

  • vital records
  • legal records that may help you protect your rights, document your property and financial assets, etc.
  • historically important records.

Make duplicates and store them in a safe place outside of your home. Use a “grab and go” bag to store items that you’d absolutely want to take with you in an emergency. If your archives do suffer damage, items should be air dried or frozen within forty-eight hours to prevent mould growth. Consult a conservator to help salvage damaged items.

Further reading about personal archives


Preservation Week events continue Thursday and Friday, and I’ll give a rundown of those sessions in a few days.

Book review: Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information

This review appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Bulletin, the Indexing Society of Canada’s newsletter.


I expected to learn a lot from Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information (edited by Diane Rasmussen Neal and published by Walter deGruyter); what I didn’t expect was to enjoy reading it as much as I did. Neal and her team have put together a timely and fascinating collection of texts that explore the challenges of indexing non-text material in an online world. Although geared much more toward academically minded information scientists than to back-of-the-book indexers, this book nevertheless has a lot to offer indexers who work with illustrated books or digital documents with embedded multimedia.

Covering everything from music information retrieval systems to World of Warcraft as a case study for gaming indexing, Neal’s wide-ranging book features voices from all over the world—including Bar-Ilan University in Israel, Universidade Federal Luminense in Brazil, and Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf—but also showcases the strength of Canadian research in the field, with contributions from doctoral students and faculty at the University of Toronto, McGill University, and Western University, where Neal is an assistant professor.

Although I read the chapters about music with interest (Jason Neal, for example, looks at the problematic definition of classical in his probe of genre in music recommender systems), I focused mostly on the content most relevant to book indexers—namely, image indexing. Chris Landbeck’s chapter about editorial cartoons was eye-opening, as he explained that several factors contribute to the complexity of indexing these images:

  1. editorial cartoons are time sensitive;
  2. there is no tradition of describing editorial cartoons for the Electronic Age to draw on;
  3. editorial cartoons do not exist in a vacuum, but in a rich and active world that a reader must be familiar with in order to both perceive the visual part of the cartoon as well the message within it. (p. 61)

This distinction between an image’s “ofness” and “aboutness” is echoed in Kathrin Knautz’s chapter about emotions in multimedia; indexing must take into account that, because “an emotion may arise for various reasons (induction, empathy, contagion),” (p. 359) an emotion depicted may not be the same as the one evoked. Pawel Rygiel extends Landbeck’s thread about the time sensitivity of an image, showing the complications that can arise when indexing photos of architectural objects “whose name, form and function might have changed throughout their history.” (p. 288) The chapter by Renata Maria Abrantes Baracho Porto and Beatriz Valadares Cendón about an image-based retrieval system for engineering drawings was also interesting; I once worked on an art book in which the designer included details of the artwork next to the tombstone data (the title, date, medium, dimensions, and inscriptions for each piece of artwork)—a lovely visual index—and this chapter in Neal’s book made me wonder whether a closer relationship between indexer and designer may yield surprising, useful results for carefully chosen projects.

The book’s biggest weakness, ironically, is its unforgivably anemic index. Only three pages in a 428-page book, the index is virtually useless, with its entry for “indexing” consisting of 108 undifferentiated locators.

Indexing and Retrieval of Non-Text Information offers indexers a lot to ponder, especially in its look at the strengths and weaknesses of social tagging and the question of whether crowdsourcing the task of indexing will ever put us out of a job. For the working book indexer, however, this book is probably overkill. If someone extracted only the information that was relevant to book indexers and edited it into a smaller, more manageable resource, that abridged volume would be a welcome addition to any indexer’s reference shelf.

Book review: The Functional Art

“Can we throw in an infographic to break up the text a little?”

When I was cutting my editorial teeth as a student journalist, that wasn’t an uncommon question to hear in the newsroom, but it’s one that I imagine would make Alberto Cairo cringe. Cairo’s the author of The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization (published by New Riders), and he persuasively argues that infographics designers aren’t simply at the service of writers and art directors—they’re expert journalists in their own right, using visual storytelling to allow readers to explore and discover.

Cairo is an instructor of information graphics and visualization at the School of Communication at the University of Miami, and his passion for teaching comes through in his engaging text. The Functional Art is meant to teach students of information visualization the principles of good design, many of which parallel the principles of good writing and clear communication. Writes Cairo,

The relationship between visualization and art… is similar to the linkage of journalism and literature. A journalist can borrow tools and techniques from literature, and be inspired by great fiction writing, but she will never allow her stories to become literature. (p. xxi)

The Functional Art is divided into four parts and is illustrated throughout with real examples of effective and ineffective graphics. The first part of the book explains the need for and fundamental function of information visualization. Cairo writes, “The first and main goal of any graphic and visualization is to be a tool for your eyes and brain to perceive what lies beyond their natural reach,” adding “Most of us mortals have brains that didn’t evolve to deal with large amounts of data.” (pp. 9–10) The second part of the book looks at how our eyes and brains evolved to perceive and understand what we see and how designers can use those traits to maximize the effectiveness of their graphics. The third part, “Practice,” aims to teach readers how to create effective infographics, both static and interactive. The last part of the book consists of a series of profiles: interviews with visualization experts at the top of their professions, including, among others, John Grimwade, graphics director of Condé Nast Traveler magazine; Juan Velasco of National Geographic magazine; Hannah Fairfield, formerly of The Washington Post and now at The New York Times; Hans Rosling of the Gapminder Foundation; and Stefanie Posavec, who has developed unique ways of visualizing literature. The book also comes with a DVD that includes three lessons reinforcing the book’s key concepts.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is that Cairo uses evolutionary biology to explain the reasoning behind the design principles he advances. Our ancestors regularly faced predators and food shortages, and our brains have evolved as a result of those threats. To explain why bubble charts are not as effective as bar charts at offering accurate comparisons of data, Cairo writes, “The human brain is not good at calculating surface sizes. It is much better at comparing a single dimension such as length or height… When faced with the question of whether that bear running toward you is big enough to pose a threat, the brain doesn’t waste time or energy analyzing if the bear is tall and wide. Seeing if it’s just tall is good enough.” (p. 40) He uses a similar approach to show how to make the best use of colour, explaining that “the brain is much better at quickly detecting shade variations than shape differences” (p. 113) but that “pure colors are uncommon in nature, so limit them to highlight whatever is important in your graphics.” (p. 105)

The parallels between information visualization and text editing, particularly plain language principles, are stark. After all, “graphics, charts, and maps aren’t just tools to be seen, but to be read and scrutinized.” (p. xx) In one of the profiles at the end of the book, interview subject Moritz Stefaner says, “Learning about how human language works is very important for visualization and information graphics because they are language, too. They have a grammar, a syntax, and a vocabulary.” (p. 317) Echoing a fundamental tenet of the plain language movement, Cairo notes that “graphics should not simplify messages. They should clarify them, highlight trends, uncover patterns, and reveal realities not visible before.” (p. 79) He also says, “Never, ever dumb down your data just because you think your readers will not ‘get it.'” (p. 84) As plain language experts know, it’s all about respect for your reader: don’t underestimate their intelligence, and structure what you offer in anticipation of how they will read it. If you make them work harder than they have to, they’ll go elsewhere for their information.

As in writing, structure and hierarchy are important in information visualization. Cairo writes,

You need to build a solid backbone for your information, a reading path, an order, and a hierarchy, before you lock yourself into a style for your display. The structure is the skeleton and muscles of your graphic; the visual style is the skin. With no bones to support it, the skin of your project will collapse. (p. 155)

Editing and fact checking are also crucial to effective information graphics. John Grimwade of Condé Nast Traveler says, “It’s not enough to do good research and then present your information to your readers. You have to edit that information. We, infographics designers, must work as reporters but, above all, as editors.” (pp. 216–217) In his interview with Jan Schwochow, Cairo warns that “Many news publications rush to produce information graphics whenever something big—such as a terrorist attach or a natural catastrophe—happens. In many cases, what they end up publishing is full of errors because they don’t double-check their sources, and some even make up details.” (p. 280) Even once you have accurate data, it takes judgment to decide what to present and how to present it. As Cairo notes in his interview with Hans Rosling, “the form in which we filter the data is more important than the actual data.” (p. 310)

Cairo’s text gave me a much deeper appreciation of the research, skill, and editorial judgment—not to mention the hours of labour—that go into making good infographics. I was anxious to get to the “Practice” portion of the book, in which Cairo outlined his methodology (while warning that many information graphics designers fall into the trap of skipping directly to step 5):

  1. Define the focus of the graphic, what story you want to tell, and the key points to be made. Have a clear idea of how the infographic will be useful to your readers, and what they will be able to accomplish with it.
  2. Gather as much information as you can about the topic you are covering. Interview sources, look for datasets, and write or storyboard ideas in quick form.
  3. Choose the best graphic form. What shapes should your data adopt? What kind of charts, maps, and diagrams will best fit the goals you set in the first step?
  4. Complete your research. Flesh out your sketches and storyboards.
  5. Think about the visual style. Choose typefaces, color palettes, etc.
  6. If you’ve been sketching offline, move the design to the computer. Complete the graphic using the appropriate software tools. (p. 154)

Each of these steps in Cairo’s methodology could have used significantly more elaboration—perhaps even its own chapter. For example, where is the best place to “look for datasets”? How do you discern between reliable and unreliable data? How do you “choose the best graphic form,” and how do you know that the way you choose to present your data doesn’t misrepresent its message? How can you decide “what story you want to tell” before knowing what the data are going to say? Instead of answering these questions, Cairo jumped immediately into a chapter about interactive graphics, leaving me feeling ill-equipped to apply the principles he so careful laid out in his first several chapters.

In general, The Functional Art was a fascinating read for me, as an editor with a science background. Having the justification for basic infographics design principles grounded in evolutionary biology gave important context: good design is not just about what’s trendy or what “feels right”; there’s a reason that some presentations promote understanding better than others. Cairo’s angle made me wonder how a similar approach could be applied to writing. Given that “eminent scientists have famously asserted that their thinking processes are not based on the mind speaking to itself using words, but on giving visual mental shape to concepts and ideas to facilitate their combination in some sort of imaginary space.” (p. 141) (giving credence to the editorial mantra, “show, don’t tell”), how can we use the way we interpret words into mental images to write and communicate better?

This book also made me aware of how much I’ve neglected infographics as a tool in the publications I’ve worked on. I suspect I’m not the only one who seems to default to photography as a means of illustration, but Cairo deftly shows that photography may not always be the best graphical choice. The Functional Art has opened my eyes to opportunities to use visualization to further understanding beyond simple pie charts or bar graphs, and the book is loaded with links to additional information for readers to continue learning about the field.

However, as a pedagogical tool, the book could have been strengthened in several ways. One simple way would have been to add a summary of important points at the end of each chapter to serve as a quick-reference guide. Another would have been to offer readers (most of whom I would assume would be students) exercises or activities that would let them apply the principles they learned in each chapter. And as I mentioned earlier, after seven chapters of background information and build-up, I found it a letdown that only two chapters were devoted to the actual practice of creating information graphics. The second of those focused on interactive graphics before I felt I had had a chance to fully absorb, let alone master, the basics of non-interactive graphics. Although the lessons on the DVD reinforced the concepts in the book, they weren’t enough to leave me feeling confident that I had the tools I needed to start creating meaningful infographics. I would have preferred to see Cairo deconstruct each step of his methodology and expand it into an individual chapter, perhaps getting the room to do that by shortening the profiles and inserting them as a recurring highlight or feature within each chapter.

ISC Conference 2012, Day 1—Indexing National Film Board of Canada images

NFB librarian Katherine Kasirer showed ISC conference attendees what’s involved in indexing the National Film Board’s collection, particularly its Stock Shot library.

We all know the National Film Board as a Canadian institution. It was established in 1939 and has about 13,000 titles in its catalogue, including feature-length documentaries and short animated films. Only 2,500 are available through the website, and these are the result of the NFB’s ongoing project to digitize all films and make them available for streaming.

The NFB also has what it calls the Stock Shot library (or the “Images” database), which is a collection of discarded footage (outtakes) that can be used in other productions. The database also includes

  • the Canadian Army Film and Photo Units (CAPFU) collection, deposited in 1946
  • the Associated Screen News collection
  • captured materials from World War II (German war propaganda)
  • the Canadian Government Motion Picture collection

Users might be, say, music video or commercial producers, researchers, or documentary and feature filmmakers. The database has very fine subject indexing to allow users to find exactly what they need. Since filmmakers often have to convey a particular mood or show a specific object or event, the indexing must include a number of elements of information to help users retrieve the desired footage, including

  • subject
  • location
  • shooting conditions (e.g., foggy, sunny)
  • time of day, season
  • camera angles (e.g., close-up, aerial shot)
  • year of production
  • special effects (e.g., underwater, time-lapse)
  • camera operator
  • film (title of film that produced the outtakes)
  • technical details

The search is, of course, bilingual, and will bring up images and clips, not just a written description. Kasirer’s presentation really drove home how specific and often how nuanced image and footage indexing can be.

ISC Conference 2012, Day 1—Building a bilingual taxonomy for ordinary images indexing

Elaine Ménard gave ISC conference attendees a glimpse into the world of information science research. An assistant professor in the school of information studies at McGill University, Ménard embarked on a project to develop a bilingual taxonomy to see how controlled vocabularies can assist in both indexing and information retrieval. Taxonomies are inherently labour intensive to create, and the bilingualism adds an additional complication.

Ménard’s Taxonomy for Image Indexing And RetrivAl (TIIARA) project consists of three phases:

  1. a best practices review,
  2. development of the taxonomy, and
  3. testing and refinement of the taxonomy.

Phase 3 is currently underway, and she gave us an overview of the first two phases.

In phase 1, Ménard and her team evaluated 150 resources, including 70 image collections held by libraries, museums, image search engines, and commercial stock agencies and 80 image-sharing platforms with user-generated tagging. They discovered that 40% of the metadata dealt with the image’s dimensions, material, and source, and 50% of the metadata addressed copyright information, with the balance devoted to subject classification. This review of best practices constituted the basis of phase 2.

In phase 2, Ménard’s team constructed an image database and developed the top-level categories and subcategories of the taxonomy. To create the database, they solicited voluntary submissions and ended up with a database, called Images DOnated Liberally (IDOL), of over 6,000 photos from 14 contributors. Her taxonomy kept in mind Miller’s Law of 7 +/- 2 and featured (after a series of revisions and refinements) nine top-level categories, designed to help users with retrieval while being as broad as possible, and a further forty-three second-level categories.

After the category headings were translated, two volunteers, one anglophone and the other francophone, tested the preliminary taxonomy through a card-sorting game, in which they were instructed to sort the second-level cards according to whatever structure they desired and provide a heading for each sorted group. This pretest showed a polarization of “splitters” and “lumpers” and didn’t provide any practical recommendations for the taxonomy but did suggest revisions to the card-sorting exercise.

Ten participants (five male, five female; five anglophone, five francophone) were recruited to test the taxonomy to expose problematic categories in the structure. Half of the group was instructed to sort the second-level categories according to the existing first-level structure; the other half could sort the second-level categories as they pleased. Through this test Ménard hoped to assess how well each category and subcategory were understood; the differences between the French and English sorts would reveal nuances that had to be taken into account in the translation of the structure.

Results showed that the first-level categories of “Arts,” “Places,” and “Nature” were well understood but that “Abstractions,” “Activities,” and “Business and Industry” were problematic. Feedback from participants helped researchers clarify the taxonomic structure to seven first-level headings. Interestingly, Ménard found fewer disparities between the languages than expected.

The revised TIIARA structure was refined to include second-, third-, and fourth-level subcategories and was simultaneously developed in English and French.

In phase 3, underway now, two indexers—one English, one French—will work to index all images in the IDOL databases according to the TIIARA structure. Iterative user testing will be carried out to validate and refine the taxonomy.

So far the study has shown that language barriers still prevent users from easily accessing information, including visual resources, and a bilingual taxonomy is a definite benefit for image searchers. Eventually the aim is to implement TIIARA in an image search engine.

Picture Research with MRM Associates: Recap

Yesterday I attended the much-anticipated EAC seminar on picture research, presented by Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine of MRM Associates. In addition to helping clients find the images they need for their publications, their company negotiates licensing agreements with copyright holders, clearing permission for their clients to use copyrighted text, images, and footage in their projects. MRM Associates works mostly with educational publishers.

The workshop was packed with information, and I wish it could have been an hour or so longer, as I had a list of questions I didn’t get the opportunity to ask. This summary is a mere sampling of the material the speakers covered, but I’ve tried my best to focus on the highlights.

MacLachlan and Capitaine began with an overview of copyright, starting with the Statute of Anne—the 1710 act of the British parliament that first defined copyright and served as the precedent for copyright acts in the U.S. and Canada. In Canada, copyright protects the creator of a work for the period between creation to fifty years after the creator’s death (after which it enters the public domain), and it is overseen by Industry Canada and the Department of Canadian Heritage. Whereas the U.S. has the concept of fair use, Canada has fair dealing, which is far more restrictive. For example, use of a copyrighted work as part of criticism falls under fair use in the U.S. but wouldn’t be permitted in Canada.

To learn more about copyright, MacLachlan and Capitaine suggest consulting the Copyright Advisory Office at Columbia University or following copyright experts Michael Geist and Lesley Ellen Harris. Michael Geist focuses on Canadian copyright, and his site has some interesting articles about Bill C-11, which proposes some significant changes to how copyright is assigned. For instance, whereas currently the copyright of a work-for-hire image taken by a photographer is held by the entity that hired the photographer, if Bill C-11 is passed, the photographer would retain copyright.

Determining whether permission is required underlies what MRM Associates does for its clients. Naturally, clients want to save money, and so knowing sources of low-cost images and images in the public domain is important. MacLachlan and Capitaine warn that artwork is a particularly tricky area: a work of art itself may be in the public domain, but the photograph of the artwork may not be. In fact, the art galleries and museums that house a work of art may own the copyright to the photo and would likely charge for its use; their image databases are a revenue stream for them. Bridgeman Art Library is a good place to begin searching for all artwork (both in copyright and in the public domain); it has built relationships with galleries, museums, and archives all over the world and has an extensive, searchable database. In fact, if you know that a certain gallery with which Bridgeman has a representation agreement houses a given work of art but you don’t see it in the database, you can still contact Bridgeman, which will more than likely be able to procure an image of that artwork on your behalf.

I asked if someone who scanned in an image now has rights to it, much as a photographer of a work of art would. MacLachlan and Capitaine said no—a scan qualifies as a reproduction and thus doesn’t carry copyright. However, if the person then manipulates the image—retouches it, cleans it up, etc.—then that is value added that the person may wish to charge for.

For artwork still under copyright—even art in a public space—you need permission from the artist. If a photograph features a person or trademarks and logos, you may require additional permission. This YouTube video about image rights explains the many layers of permission you may need to clear.

MacLachlan and Capitaine then outlined their research process:

1. Receive brief or photo log

A client gives them a list of the images that they need. Sometimes these lists are just vague descriptions, and other times a client may have a very specific image in mind. At this point, the client will also specify the budget for the project.

The photo log is an essential record-keeping document. Usually in a spreadsheet, the log records the following:

  • Unique asset identifier
  • Description of asset
  • Reproduction size—quarter page, half page, full page?
  • Final page number
  • Type of asset—photo, illustration, cartoon, etc.?
  • Source contact info—full address details (some copyright holders request copies of the final book)
  • Source asset number
  • Credit line
  • Estimated and final fee
  • Rights granted
  • Status indicators—when contact was made, when the image was ordered, etc.

2. Research assets

Sources of images include stock agencies, museums and archives, the Internet (but use with caution), and photographers. Getty Images and Corbis are the “big two” among stock agencies, but because of their size, their fees are usually non-negotiable. However, your client may have a vendor agreement with them, allowing you to use that agreement’s pricing. In addition to Getty and Corbis, however, there are scores of smaller stock agencies, many of which specialize in certain niches. Microstock agencies, such as Dreamstime and Shutterstock, are a source of low-cost royalty-free images, but the quality may not be as reliable. You can also turn to aggregators such as the Picture Archive Council of America or the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies.

Some sources of free or low-cost images include the Canadian government, Library and Archives Canada, the U.S. government, the Library of Congress, university digital libraries, and some NGOs, such as the UN or the WHO.

If you know you’ll need some images from museums and archives, MacLachlan suggests hitting them first, because they are often understaffed and can take weeks to get back to you.

If what the client has requested is extremely specific or regional, it may be faster to call a photographer. MacLachlan and Capitaine have found many good photographers just through Google or through aggregators such as AG Pix or Photographers Direct.

3. Submit selections to decision makers

MacLachlan and Capitaine will narrow down the selection to three to five images per asset, and the client will choose the final image.

4. Obtain high-resolution images

High-resolution images from stock agencies and most photographers are “comps” until licensed—so you don’t pay for them unless you actually use them—although sometimes photographers will charge a kill fee if you choose not to use an image. Royalty-free images are non-refundable. Many archives require pre-payment for the hi-res.

These high-resolution images can be huge, so a high-speed connection is essential. Most files are transmitted via FTP sites or services such as Dropbox or YouSendIt.

5. Compile acknowledgement copy

This is where having a detailed photo log comes in handy. MacLachlan and Capitaine strongly suggest being diligent in logging the image credit line as soon as the client has decided to use that image. They caution that getting the credit line wrong can be very costly. Licensing agencies can impose a 100 per cent surcharge if the credit line is incorrect.

6. Negotiate and clear licenses

There are three main types of licensing:

  • Rights managed—based on one-time use; the intended use, media, territory, duration, print run must all be specified.
  • Royalty free—a one-time fee based on the size of the image; the image can be used multiple times for multiple projects, within the terms of the license.
  • Creative commons—creators can choose to allow others to use and distribute freely, as long as credit is given, or they may place restrictions on how their work can be used.

MRM Associates will finalize the usage letter for the licensing, specifying the items to be used, reproduction size, title of the publication, author/publisher/ISBN, print run, price, publication date, territory, target audience, and rights required. This usage letter is a legal document, so make sure the client’s name appears on it, not yours.

The agreements will generally state whether an image can be modified. Royalty-free images usually can, but rights-managed images and images from photographers may not allow it. Modifications include cropping, rotating, and flopping.

7. Submit completed log and paperwork

MRM Associates will finalize the photo log and return the supporting materials to the client.


MacLachlan and Capitaine touched on the issue of orphan works—works for which the copyright holders are unknown. (These abound on the Internet, of course.) They caution against using them. You can license their use through the Copyright Board of Canada, which will charge you a fee and keep that money in the event that a copyright holder comes forward with a claim. The researcher community, including the American Society of Picture Professionals, has some forums to track down copyright holders of orphan works; the idea is to get as many eyes on it as possible and hope that one of them can identify the creator. However, using an orphan work always carries the risk that the copyright holder could identify him- or herself and take legal action.

The presenters also mentioned a concept that was new to me—what they called a “client asset database.” Some of their bigger clients have their own image banks where they store public-domain images or royalty-free images they’ve already paid for. For example, although Library and Archives Canada images are mostly public domain, LAC will charge a processing fee, and there’s no point paying that more than once.

The main takeaways from the seminar for me

It’s all about risk assessment

Deciding when to secure permission can fall into a grey area in some situations, and since the client assumes the risk, it’s important to alert the client to all possible issues when they decide whether to use an image. How high is the risk of not securing a model release? Of using an orphan work? Of using ephemera and advertising from companies that are now out of business?

Get the credit line right

Although I’ve always tried to be careful to have the credit lines match what the copyright holders or stock agencies have supplied, I didn’t realize the consequences for errors were so severe. So I suppose it’s safest, if possible, to copy and paste rather than to key in a credit line when preparing acknowledgements.

Royalty-free images can be used again, for different projects

I had always assumed that royalty-free images could be used again only for new editions of an existing book; I didn’t know they could be used for multiple projects. Given the utility of a publisher’s own “asset database,” I will definitely start recommending to my consulting clients that they consider establishing one, if they work a lot with images.


The seminar was incredibly illuminating. Thanks to Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine for sharing their wisdom and for allowing me to post this summary of their talk.

Picture research with MRM Associates

When I worked on Cow by Florian Werner (translated by Doris Ecker—and recently reviewed in Publishers Weekly) about a year ago, I ended up spending roughly 40 per cent of my time trying to track down sources and clear rights for a couple dozen images that ended up in the book.

For me, it was a baptism of fire—it was the first time I’d had to do image research to that extent, and I faced a number of constraints: we wanted to use as many of the images that appeared in the German edition as we could, but all of the world English rights had to be (re-)negotiated, and some of the rights holders flat-out refused to let us use their images; I had to find high-resolution versions of all of the images, since they appeared in the German edition as marginal thumbnails; I had a limited budget and had to find public-domain substitutes for images whenever possible; and, of course, the author had to approve all of the new images before they found their way into the book. I ended up making several visits to the city and university libraries to find images from old books we could scan; ordering a postcard and an old poster off of eBay; emailing a number of people before I could finally find out who owned the rights to a photo of David Lynch’s artwork that had been reproduced with abandon and without credit all over the Internet; trying to use reverse image searches to find alternative sources of high-resolution public-domain images; and negotiating image rights with art galleries, museums, archives, publishers, and licensing agencies. In other words, although I know some of what I had to do was essential, I am sure that I did many, many things the hard way.

This is why I am very much looking forward to Mary Rose MacLachlan and Derek Capitaine’s half-day EAC seminar about picture research on Saturday, April 21. I’ve already compiled a long list of questions arising from my experiences with Cow and other projects, and I’m hoping to learn efficient ways to identify copyright holders and negotiate with stock and licencing agencies.

As of the time of this posting, there are twelve spots left in the seminar, and I’d encourage anyone who has worked or might work with images or permissions to sign up (registration closes this Friday, April 13). I heard Mary Rose MacLachlan give a hugely informative talk at an EAC-BC meeting, and I think this workshop will be extremely useful. That said, with the acknowledgement that not everyone can attend, I’m offering to take any image-related questions you might have and ask them on your behalf. Contact me or leave a question in the comments, and I’ll report back after the session.