Visual Research in a Digital World

By guest writer Laura Lucas of Big Picture Research

I’m often asked if visual research is easier today than it was before computers. It’s a tough question to answer because there’s good and bad with all change. Technology has certainly delivered access and opened new doors but that doesn’t always mean it’s easier.

I consider myself fortunate to have learned the “old school” way to research.   I travelled to libraries and archives when possible and spent days sifting through reference material. Then I waited patiently for a VHS or ¾-inch format screener to be brought up from a vault for viewing. My orders were carefully filled out on two different sets of paperwork; one for the archival permission and one for the transfer house. I carried heavy film and tape assets up and down stairs, tripped over the same objects on my office floor and then waited some more for a courier to deliver master material. License agreements were faxed or mailed back and forth with numerous amendments and then signed in triplicate. The hard line telephone was my main communications tools and I worked closely with an editor in the suite. TV production was exciting!

Today’s visual research is heavily online from a desk and no longer limited to television and film. There are a lot of new media venues including websites, books, blogs, marketing material, event publicity, non-profit work, music and even video game projects. So the work can be very unique. You can also save a lot of time as negotiations are handled by email; online ordering replaces the phone and digital signatures are accepted on contracts.

On the positive side – my research is now worldwide with access to more archival collections and new suppliers. This is great! So much material is searchable and viewable online. I can screen hundreds of film and video clips and photos in just a few days. I can organize them all in a workspace; perform mini-edits; easily share my findings with a team and price shop in relatively short order. I might still need to visit an archive, but a ton of legwork can be done beforehand and cut my travel bill down at the other end. Let’s not forget the increased access to other researchers. We’ve never been so easily connected making it easier to share contacts, industry news and tips and tricks. The Visual Researcher’s Society of Canada (www.visualresearch.ca ) is a good example. As a networked group we can better promote excellence in the field of visual research and negotiate improved prices for our clients.

So what’s the downside? Well – originality has taken a hit. I’m starting to see the same images over and over again. Hands-on research skills are going by the wayside as we rely on search engines. Not everything is digitized and I fear some of the best material will remain untapped as quick and cheap becomes the norm. Storage costs are declining so instead of properly curating collections we’re keeping more and more junk with poor metadata. Keeping up with changing file formats is becoming a management issue and we’re losing the personal working relationships as we trade phone interaction for email.

One key observations of the virtual age is that everyone thinks they can be a visual researcher! I appreciate that the average person can find their own images online – but remember the old adage about being too good to be true? Ask yourself if what you’re seeing is credible? Original images can be cropped, altered, edited, incorrectly sourced and very convincing in a digital world. I spend more time tracking down the source of a grainy, thumbnail sized photo to find out it’s not accurate or investigating a video to find out it’s made up of 20 bits of other shorter films. This creates huge frustration in the end and essentially eats up all time savings that might have been possible with computers.

So I continue to keep an open mind on the future of visual research. My own career spans a mere 2.5 decades; a relatively short period of time when you’re talking about history. I would love to hear reflections from those of you who been researching even longer. Please comment if you can.

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