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The Getty makes art accessible with online database

The Getty uncorks a trove of art resources with an online searchable database.

By Mary K. Pratt
March 10, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The J. Paul Getty Trust publishes the Art & Architecture Thesaurus, a priceless resource that art historians use to research terms, descriptions and bibliographic citations related to art and architecture.

But as valuable as it is, the AAT, which was first published as a three-volume tome in 1990, wasn't very easy to search, edit or update. So the Getty Trust turned to technology for help.

The organization's information technology services (ITS) unit responded by creating a thesaurus construction and publication system that now supports the Getty's Global Art Resources program, a Web-based resource that includes the three thesauri. The system has improved access to the electronic vocabulary databases and made the information in them more usable.

"We've unlocked art resources for anyone who is interested, not just art researchers and museum professionals," says ITS director Marilyn Gillette.

The Getty Vocabularies project was recognized as the 2007 winner in the Media, Arts and Entertainment category in the annual Computerworld Honors program.

At a Glance

  • The J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles is an international cultural and philanthropic institution focused on the visual arts. There are four programs under the trust's umbrella: the J.Paul Getty Museum, plus a research institute, a conservation institute and a foundation.
  • Project champions include project manager Joan Cobb and lead programmer Gregg Garcia, who worked with an IT project team of about 15 Getty staffers and five outside consultants.
  • About 70 workers make up the IT staff today.
  • The Getty spent $570,000 between 1998 and 2006. It doesn't calculate financial ROI, but project officials say benefits include increased access to data, easier and more efficient searches and updates, and the ability to collect more data and build additional databases.

"The Getty is one of the most respected and important sources for controlled vocabularies," says Karen Calhoun, vice president of the WorldCat and metadata services at the Online Computer Library Center, a nonprofit membership organization based in Dublin, Ohio.

The groundwork for such innovation dates back nearly three decades.

The Getty started building the AAT in 1980, aiming to gather disparate pieces of information in one place, says Murtha Baca, head of the Getty Vocabularies program at the Getty Research Institute.

The art community catalogs art, architecture and cultural artifacts, just as libraries catalog books, Baca explains. However, while the library world has standard cataloging tools, such as Library of Congress subject headings, the art community didn't have anything like that when the Getty project began. Through the AAT, the Getty hoped to provide tools, standards and best practices for documenting works of art.

"It was to provide a standardized tool, to provide a central point so everyone creating these terms can contribute them to one vocabulary, and we in turn could make them available to the entire community," Baca says.

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