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More on BHA: Arguing Over Alternatives; Avery Index Rescued by Columbia

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Do we really need the Bibliography of the History of Art? Or is it a dinosaur?

Below are some some more thoughts on that question, taken from interview excerpts that didn’t make it into my article about the Getty Research Institute’s (GRI’s) withdrawal of support for the BHA, which appears on the “Leisure & Arts” page of today’s Wall Street Journal (p. D7).

The chief argument against BHA (touched upon in my article by Michael Conforti, director of the Clark Art Institute) is that the 38-year-old art research database has outlived its usefulness. Today’s scholars are relying on different sources for information, whether it’s other databases like JSTOR (arguably the biggest competitor), or everyone’s first stop for research, Google. “This is not about loss,” Conforti told me. “It’s about change.”

Thomas Gaehtgens, director of the
Getty Research Institute, said he had been “the strongest defender of the BHA in the GRI. I said it’s really still useful. I was positive to reform it and continue it.” But he added that there are now many alternatives to the BHA.

Gaehtgens told me:

If somebody only used BHA as a reference, you would think he is not really well-informed….Every tool in a discipline like art history has to be evaluated some time.
We have ARTstor, JSTOR, Art Index, arthistoricum.net, Google.

But Paul Jaskot, the president of the College Art Association and art history professor at DePaul University, argues that BHA is superior to the competition in several respects. He criticized Google-based research as “scattershot,” driven by technological imperatives, “rather than by intellectual questions that are making connections with at least some of the scholarship in the field.” Google Books, he said, “is a phenomenal resource, but it is less effective for the researcher than it is for the undergraduate student.” Jaskot described JSTOR as a “standardized index.”

By contrast, the deeply knowledgeable art historians who worked on BHA’s editorial team, according to Jaskot, supplied “more information about the focus of the article and the subject index—the links to that—are really quite phenomenon.” BHA was informed by staff members who were “thinking about scholarly questions,” he approvingly observed.

Likewise, Michael Rinehart, who was founding co-editor of BHA, called JSTOR’s contents “a very small list for art history, so far.” As for the idea behind today’s conference—the possible formation of a mega-index that complies the databases of international libraries and research institutes, Rinehart says he doesn’t see existing databases or any proposed new network of existing art research databases as alternatives to BHA, because its “core purpose was to provide a qualitatively reliable bibliography of record for the discipline, including abstracts and detailed indexing. And it should be cumulative and continuous. I don’t see anything taking the place of that that exists on the scene today.”

It also should be noted that BHA is not the only bibliographical index from which the GRI withdrew its financial support. For 26 years, the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals had been a joint project
between the Getty and Columbia University. Informed that the Getty was pulling out, Columbia last July reclaimed the Avery.

Following up on today’s meeting on the future of art bibliography at the Metropolitan Museum, further discussions will be held at the annual conference of the Art Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS),
opening Friday in Boston. Gaehtgens told me that he may convene another follow-up
discussion later in Los Angeles.

Before I head out to the Met meeting, I should note that the Comments section for my Wall Street Journal article is as bare as the ad space in CultureGrrl‘s righthand column. Care to post a comment? Care to place and ad?

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