Beyond Google Images Part 3

This series of posts is adapted from the Library Information Seminar “Beyond Google Images”, which looks at issues and problems faced when sourcing images from the web and gives examples of a range of useful image resources available to College staff and students.

For Part 1: Introduction, click here.

For Part 2: Google Images and other search engines, click here.

Part 3: Why use image databases? considers the advantages of using specialist image resources instead of image search engines, with reference to the criteria of findability, quality and copyright already discussed. Later episodes will look at examples of resources for Art, Design and Architecture as well as other subject areas and general-interest collections.

Part 3: Why use image databases?

Screenshot of the V&A Museum's online collections database.

Screenshot of the V&A Museum’s online collections database.

What is an image database?

For the purposes of this article, an image database is a self-contained, searchable collection of images made available online for either a limited group of users (e.g. students at eca) or the general public. Examples range from vast museum and gallery collections, to commercial image libraries, to subscription-only services and other password-protected educational databases. While the contents of some of these are visible to search engines, many more are invisible because of password-protection or technical issues.

As discussed previously, search engines index the contents of web pages, and as such retrieve images based largely on the surrounding text. In an image database, however, each image is attached to a catalogue record containing information that might include its title, its creator, a caption or description, subject headings or keywords and so on. This information is used to retrieve images that match our search query. Most databases offer a range of search options, which may include simple keyword searching, advanced searching by specific “fields” or parts of the catalogue record, filtering of results by particular criteria and browsing by creator, period, subject etc.

What are the advantages of using image databases?

The previous episode described the features of image search engines like Google Images, and pointed out their shortcomings in terms of images’ findability, their technical and aesthetic quality, and our ability to re-use them while respecting copyright. Image databases address these problems in various ways – one of the main factors being that, unlike search engines their content is selected, digitised and catalogued by human beings. So, how do they help?

Example of a database record from the Ashmolean Museum's Eastern Art Online.

Example of a database record from the Ashmolean Museum’s Eastern Art Online.

Databases help particularly with the problem of findability. As well as correctly identifying an image’s title and creator, a professional cataloguer can make explicit in words features that search engines currently cannot detect such as the objects or people represented, or concepts or themes it expresses. They might also organise the collection into appropriate categories that allow browsing for similar or related images. Also, most databases deal with a particular subject area, so you can be pretty sure your search terms mean what you want them to mean. These features make searching more efficient, and make browsing or exploring imagery more enjoyable and meaningful. It’s much easier to compare different images with the same subject or by the same artist, for example, by simply clicking on links. Try clicking on the image from Eastern Art Online above, then click on the links in the various categories (e.g. in “Object type” click on “netsuke”) to see how the database allows you to browse easily.


This screenshot and detail demonstrate the high quality images found in some databases, in this case from the Library of Congress.

This screenshot and detail demonstrate the high quality images found in some databases, in this case from the Library of Congress.

Expert digitisation of databases’ content generally leads to improved technical quality, although this can vary significantly from site to site. You’ll find that educational databases often provide the best quality images. (To get an idea of the high resolution images available from some collections, click on either of the images from the Library of Congress above, then click on the thumbnail – if you have a fast internet connection you can download a very detailed 16MB TIFF version of the image). The fact that images are selected for inclusion, usually by expert curators, also implies that the images are considered to be “good” or “interesting” images, although of course such subjective judgements are problematic. At any rate there should be less risk of having to wade through lots of mediocre images as sometimes happens with Google.

Example of permitted uses and conditions from the Scran image database.

Example of permitted uses and conditions from the Scran image database.

In terms of copyright, what you are allowed to do with the images varies from collection to collection. You’ll find that most allow one copy of an image to be downloaded or printed for personal use or private study, so you should be fine if you’re using an image for reference. Other collections will allow further educational use such as reproduction in essays or teaching materials. In some cases, the materials are public domain and can be freely used for any purpose. So while the situation remains complex, image databases have the advantage over search engines that you are at least explicitly told what you can and cannot do with their contents – look for a link to “copyright information” or “terms and conditions”.


This episode has highlighted in general terms the advantages of using specialist image databases rather than search engines. As well as making it easier to find images, such resources often offer much better quality and resolution, and make it clear what you are allowed to do with the images under copyright law.

There are hundreds of specialist image databases available online. The following episodes will show you how to find quality resources, and give examples of databases across a range of subject areas.

15. March 2010 by jfurnes1
Categories: e-resources, library information seminars | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Beyond Google Images Part 3

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