For anyone who writes with footnotes, Zotero is a fabulous tool. With a click of a mouse, it imports catalog records from a library database, or JSTOR, or even Amazon, allowing a scholar to create a personal reference datbase on his desktop. Better still, it permits extensive annotations, keyword tagging, and hyperlinks both to other items in the database and to external materials. Some users know that it can catalog images, too, pulling metadata from Flickr, or HABS. If you already run Zotero and need to work with images, try it. The possibilities are mind-bending for those of us who work with visual resources.
Its handling of images in a structured way makes me wonder: could Zotero be used to build a massive database of buildings? In other words, if the metadata reveals that multiple images represent a single building, could Zotero be made to recognize the fact? Since it’s open-source, I assume the answer is yes, and that the only real question is how difficult it would be.
Imagine a web-based resource of architectural photographs, such as the one that the SAH is building with ArtStor, called the AVRN. Now imagine that the metadata for each of those images was carefully controlled, so that City and State fields were populated consistently, as well as Building Name, Date, etc. Zotero could grab the thumbnail, link to the image file (optionally downloaded), and make a record of the relevant metadata (including latitude and longitude) in the database. A handful of fields would need to be added to Zotero’s structure for this to work well for architecture.
In time, as hundreds of images were ingested, Zotero would beocme an index to buildings, sortable, say, by region, or date. The image records could be linked, furthermore, to secondary resources, like JSTOR articles, or texts referenced in Google Books.
Now imagine a user who kept his own image library in tip-top shape, with metadata carefully applied in a custom XMP panel for architecture. If Zotero could pull XMP/IPTC metadata from image files, it could incorporate, as well, locally held material. And if images posted on Flickr had carefully structured metadata in XMP fields, these, too, could be brought in (at the moment, I think Zotero is just pulling metadata from Flickr-specific fields, not XMP).
Using Zotero to manage image references would be a marvelous way to maintain research collections on architecture or, i presume, any visually oriented subject. The problem is that, unlike books or journal articles, there is no single standard for cataloguing buildings. The AVRN might develop a standard for its own materials but this would only be as exhaustive as its own collection.
A Union List of Buildings would be a fabulous resource for those of us who study architecture in any capacity: find a structure on a map, or in an index, and retrieve the basics–location, date, primary construction material, and architect or builder, if known. With a union list and a MARC-like record for each building, Zotero or a similar tool could, with a click, import correct, fielded metadata for an image, and be a central tool for bringing together all sorts of references, from images and texts to police blotter entries and property tax lists. Best of all, with good metadata, there would be no need for any of the original resources to be held locally: the Zotero-like database could be, like Zotero itself, a lightweight annotated list of references and links.
Of course all of this depends upon the existence of a Union List of Buildings, which doesn’t exist. Who will build it? And how?