The Science and Art of Online Research in the Fine Arts: A Process Approach

By Wallace, Mary Colette | Searcher, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Science and Art of Online Research in the Fine Arts: A Process Approach


Wallace, Mary Colette, Searcher


Process involves making sense of what is known so that the unknown can be explored. The confusion of online art research arises from the multiplicity of subjects such as ownership, location, category of artwork, history and other aspects involved in pinpointing a certain artist or artwork. When one chooses to avoid fee databases such as Dialog, with its formal searching structures, the searching tasks multiply. The process generally covered here is just one of many methods that enable a coherent organized search.

"Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind."

--Marston Bates

Herbert A. Simon wrote in The Sciences of the Artificial (Third Edition, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996, P. 211), "There is nowa growing body of evidence that the activity called human problem solving is basically a form of means-ends analysis that aims at discovering a process description of the path that leads to a desired goal. The general paradigm is: Given a blueprint, to find the corresponding recipe."

Searches in the field of art research may involve multiple online databases, so trying to program a search according to the fields each database assigns requires too much peripheral information and time. Upon reflection the analogous question becomes, "Is it better to spend time preparing and improving swim techniques -- OR -- to spend time on memorizing the pool dimensions, depths, and hours of operation for all the different swimming pools I might use?"

The optimum process requires understanding the function of the needed and given information before taking action. Howard S. Becker, in his wonderful book on the process of research, Tricks of the Trade: How to ThinkAbout Your Research While You're Doing It (University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 44), writes, "Making activities the starting point focuses analysis on the situation the activity occurs in, and on all the connections what you are studying has with all the other things around it, with its context." Such connections for art researchers are precisely essential to the better terminology, more accurate querying, and higher- quality retrievals.

The "science" of online art research lies in organizing the facts about an artwork, by asking a few simple, easily remembered "connection questions" first from the client's standpoint and then from the resource standpoint.

* Who is/was the artist, or client or subject?

* What is/was the medium, technique used?

* When in time does/did the artist live, create the artwork, die?

* Where does /did the artist live while creating this artwork?

* Why is/was this artwork created?

* How much is it worth, as in asking price, value, actual sales price?

Once these questions are answered, the next step is to prioritize them according to the clients' request. In all likelihood simple searches won't require all six questions answered or verified, but the entire process of asking them and considering the answers to the questions remains an invaluable thinking guide that automatically yields key concepts and primary search terms to prioritize.

Apply the same connection questions to the source side of the equation. Programming the search will help to identify the type of information needed, but the next step is to identify the appropriate sources. Optimal sources are those that gather the information, maintain it for their own needs primarily, and then secondarily allow others access to it for free or for a fee. By asking the connection questions you will have a better view of the possible sources for the information you're seeking.

Depending upon search priorities, a starting point might require different databases -- a museum collection rather than an image library, a provenance database, a timeline filled in with each painting sold at auction, or all source types in various combinations. …

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