From Argentina to Zambia: Capturing the Digital A to Z’s of a Child Art Collection

The following chapter excerpt is from the third section of Digitization in the Real World; "The Digital Campus: Digitization in Universities and Their Libraries."  Download the entire chapter for free (PDF) or purchase online at

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Kathleen C. Lonbom, Milner Library (Illinois State University)


 The International Collection of Child Art, residing at Illinois State University’s Milner Library, is a collection of artworks produced by children and adolescents across a range of cultures and time periods, primarily mid to late 20th century. This chapter discusses the collection’s background and its role as a culturally expansive primary source. Information is provided about the Library Services and Technology Act grant funding awarded through the Illinois State Library to support the digitization project, Imagine Illinois and Beyond: Celebrating Creativity Through the Eyes of Our Children! The benefits and challenges of the digital conversion are discussed. Finally the chapter will look at alternate methods of image access, specifically audio description, to facilitate information discovery for viewers with a print disability such as vision impairment.

Collection Background

The International Collection of Child Art (ICCA) is a resource comprised of artworks created by children and adolescents from around the world. This cultural heritage collection reflects the visual expressions of young artists who capture themes from the fantastical to the familial and a myriad of themes that fall between. The collection was initiated more than forty years ago at Illinois State University (ISU), Normal, Illinois, and is now curated and administered by the University’s library. This primary source includes over 8,600 accessioned children’s artworks, from approximately 58 countries and cultures. The collection celebrates the creativity and innovative work produced by children with a multicultural perspective. The resource serves multiple audiences including students, academic scholars from across disciplines, and a wider public interested in viewing, learning about, and appreciating the imaginative vision that shapes a child’s creative pursuits.

ISU’s Milner Library acquired the ICCA in 2000 from the ISU School of Art, which inherited the resource following the closing of the University Museum in 1991. The collection had been stored in a classroom until the college could no longer accommodate it due to space constraints, lack of support staff, and less than optimal conditions for storing and maintaining this resource.

Virtual Shift: The Digital Project's Genesis

University libraries holding collections with parallel cultural and historical value have grappled with similar challenges and opportunities presented by the digital conversion of a unique resource. Questions, both philosophical and practical, invite those embarking on a digital project to entertain a range of considerations perhaps not previously attached to the physical collection. Digitization of the Eastern North Carolina Postcard Collection project members recognized the ambiguous nature of assigning subject headings to a stand-alone image, relatively free of contextual information. The postcards in this collection usually were accompanied by text caption, but did not always have context provided by a monograph (Dragon, 2009). Colorado State University’s project to digitize the University Historic Photographic Collection emphasized the collaborative process of converting a historic resource under a controlled timeline. The conversion involved a variety of project partners learning to speak each other’s professional language including archivists, metadata librarians, and digital project managers (Hunter, Legg & Oehlerts, 2010).). A Latin American political poster collection, part of the University of New Mexico Libraries Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections, speaks to digitally documenting the transient nature of a resource by preserving ephemera such as posters. Similar to children’s art, posters are not typically created to last through time, but document a specific and often meaningful moment in time situated at the edge of societal mainstream perspective (Stephenson, 2006). Clifford Lynch’s discussion of digitizing cultural heritage materials comments broadly on the discovery aspect of placing resources in an open electronic environment where unexpected and at times serendipitous communities form around such a collection. Lynch posits it is the objective of a digital library, expansive in its capacity to “enable and facilitate implicit communication” to provide a construct for the community building that develops around a collection (Lynch, 2007).

The move to consider digitization of the ICCA was rooted in curricular needs to accommodate a generation of users already vested in electronic access. By virtue of the resource’s sheer size, aging condition, and location, physical access is limited. The collection of two dimensional artworks is stored in a multi-use university warehouse that also serves as the library’s storage site for a collection of less frequently used volumes and is the home of University Archives. The warehouse is off campus and largely off limits to the public. Although slides of the artworks were created in the 1970s to support teaching and study of the collection, the analog format was no longer a viable option to support use of the collection in the 21st century academic environment. Included in the collection are sixteen thematic traveling exhibits that have been displayed widely and have garnered attention for the resource. Several hundred of the slides, selected from the collection’s traveling exhibits, were converted to digital format in 2003, but overall the condition and quality of the slides was questionable and each image required color correction. The conversion of this small sample to a digital format brought attention to the collection when the images were mounted on the ICCA website and provided the spark that ignited the pursuit of funding to digitize the collection. Art, art education, English, and children’s literature faculty actively using the collection in classes were supportive advocates for moving the resource into a fully accessible digital format.

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