Founded with a mission to enhance scholarship and teaching through the use of digital images and media, Artstor is a nonprofit organization committed to digital collection solutions for universities, museums, schools, and libraries worldwide. Our ever-increasing digital library includes more than 2 million high-quality images for education and research from a wide variety of contributors around the world. We have developed a complete set of tools to catalog, manage, and distribute digital media collections. Artstor is also involved in many community initiatives to further our mission, such as the Digital Public Library of America and the Built Works Registry. Our primary goals are to assemble image collections from across many cultures and eras in support of educational and scholarly activities, and to work with the arts and educational communities to develop collective solutions to the challenges of working in a digital environment.
During the late 1990s, institutions of higher education — particularly image-intensive fields like art history — were beginning to struggle with how to migrate from analog slides to digital images. Efforts like the digital library JSTOR were already underway to convert print-base journal collections to electronic ones, enabling colleges and universities to expand access while sharing costs for technology and preservation. For images, a similar effort had similar potential to lower institutional costs and increase access, in addition to addressing a lack of standards and daunting intellectual property concerns. In response to the community's needs, and after countless requests from universities to invest in local solutions to digitize images from their slide collections – Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president, William G. Bowen, asked two trusted staff members, James Shulman and Gretchen Wagner, to lead a new effort focused on how digitization and use of images could support teaching and research in the arts and humanities at scale. The initiative was named Artstor.
The Artstor Digital Library
The first phase of Artstor involved partners in China, France, the UK, and the U.S. building what was then called the Mellon International Dunhuang Archive, a digital repository of high-resolution images from 40 grottoes in the Gobi desert, along with images of silk banners and manuscripts from the caves brought to western Europe by English and French explorers at the turn of the 20th century. The project enabled the team to work through a multitude of complex issues and was a resounding success; it demonstrated the ability to preserve objects in peril, to reunite works of art previously scattered around the world for study, and to join people across geographical and cultural divides. The next stage of Artstor’s development required establishing a broad and deep enough collection to support teaching needs in colleges and universities. Dozens of collections from a wide variety of cultures across all major time periods followed, resulting in a resource of more than 1.9 million images including a collection of 190,000 old master drawings originally photographed at over 100 different repositories, 20 years of contemporary New York City gallery shows, archives of Islamic textiles, the restored Ghiberti "Gates of Paradise," African masks, medieval manuscripts, images of all exhibitions shown at MoMA, and many others.
Soon after the Artstor Digital Library was adopted by colleges and universities, institutions expressed an interest in managing and sharing their own collections. Shared Shelf was developed to address the community's need for a cataloging and management system that allows institutions to manage and share media collections across departments at their own campus, with other institutions, or on the open Web without requiring local technical infrastructure or administration. It began as a pilot hosting program which proved invaluable to scholars and teachers. More than two million images from 150 subscribing institutions were uploaded and made accessible alongside the Digital Library's collections through a single, new Artstor Workspace. Artstor collaborated with nine institutional partners: Colby College, Cornell University, Harvard University, Middlebury College, New York University, Society of Architectural Historians, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Miami, and Yale University, who, along with an initial group of early subscribers, contributed significant staff knowledge, time, and investment funds to develop the platform. A Shared Shelf Steering Group continues to advise on the development of Shared Shelf based on the needs of their staff and end users, working with us to develop innovative solutions to media management in ways that leverage the collective knowledge and expertise of our community.
As the initiative took shape within the Mellon Foundation, James Shulman became Artstor’s president. James had a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature and during his time at the Foundation worked closely with Bill Bowen as a research colleague and co-author, where he absorbed the importance of taking a system-wide view to uncover ways to help higher education institutions become more effective and efficient. He also worked closely with Financial Vice President Dennis Sullivan managing and monitoring the Foundation’s investment portfolio, where he witnessed directly the venture capital approach to building firms. Gretchen, an attorney in the Mellon Foundation’s Office of General Counsel served as both as Artstor General Counsel and COO, was responsible for developing a multi-pronged and pragmatic intellectual property approach that recognized and respected the concerns of the various constituents involved.
Together, James and Gretchen worked with artists, museums, and photographers (all of whom were struggling with what digitization would mean), as well as with librarians, visual resource curators, teachers and scholars to understand the landscape and opportunities, and to build a shared, mission-driven effort. They listened and sought to be responsive to the needs of those who would be transforming the way they work, whether altering the workflows in their slide library or bringing digital technology into their classrooms and workspaces. Simultaneously, they set the organization’s course on technology, intellectual property, and long-term planning. In 2001, they were fortunate to be joined by Neil Rudenstine who, having completed his service as Harvard University president, became engaged in the project and served as founding chairman of Artstor when it became independent. Neil provided invaluable leadership and advice as the new organization moved from being an in-house project at the Mellon Foundation to a mission-driven and market supported not-for-profit entity.
Through the work of this team, and under James’s leadership, Artstor became one of the largest, high-quality image resources for education in the world and a crucial partner in the digital management of images and other digital media. In addition to serving the community through the Artstor Digital Library and Shared Shelf, Artstor was also an initial content hub for the Digital Public Library of America and is a member of the IIIF (Image Interoperability Framework) Consortium.
Artstor continues to thrive, working closely with the higher education and cultural communities and providing leadership and innovative technological solutions to advance research and teaching. In 2016 Artstor joined together with ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding access to knowledge that is also home to several other innovative services for the higher education community, including Ithaka S+R, JSTOR, and Portico.
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Artstor is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.