Thing 06: Working With Images – Storing and Managing Your Files

In Thing 5 we discussed how you can find images that can be used in your work. In this follow-on post, Julie Cohen, Sophie Kollo and Ben Kreunen explore how to manage your images once you have collected them. 

Getting started

As you research, it is possible to quickly accumulate many images. Whether they are integral to your text, or they are purely decorative, images need to be stored in a way that allows you to find and reuse them as required. Unfortunately, there is no one tool that will do all of this for you, but let’s discuss some strategies to make the process of managing your image files a little easier. 

What is image management?

Image management is storing your images in a way that helps you find and reuse them at some point in the future. You can also track where you’ve made different versions of an image, or if you’ve been granted permission to use it in your research. 

What kind of images are we talking about?

Any kind of image can be managed in this way. Whether you created it yourself, or you’re using someone else’s work, you can use the same principles to ensure your collection is easier to wrangle. Your files may include things like photographs, illustrations, figures or tables, data visualisations or designs.  

Why do it?

It might seem like a huge commitment when you first start out, but managing your image files will save you a lot of time and effort in the long run. The following three examples illustrate why it might be worth investing your time and energy into this process: 

  1. You would like to reuse an image you used a few years ago in a blog post. How do you find it? How do you know whether you have permission to reuse it? 
  2. colleague wants to reuse some of your data but needs the original images from an illustration that you published. How do you know which images to send, and where they are? 
  3. You received funding for specific imaging equipment as part of a research grant, and now you need to report on it. How many images were produced by that equipment? How many publications were published as a result of having this equipment? How might you find out? 

These scenarios illustrate how spending some time thinking about how images are stored, and the information associated with them (metadata), can make a big difference to solving the problem. 

That Thing you do: integration into practice

What is metadata and how will it help me?

Metadata is any contextual information about your images. It can be descriptive, technical and administrative, so may refer to the file itself, or the processes associated with creating or managing your image files. It is a good idea to consider administrative metadata questions early on: Who can access it? What file format should be used for an access copy? Should a cover sheet be attached when sharing?  

Embedding metadata in images allows other software to collect and reuse that metadata without requiring you to re-enter it, e.ginserting captions from images in InDesign.There is a wide range of information that can be read from, and stored in, images including descriptive, technical, and bibliographic metadata.   

The key to managing images lies in the collection, management, and reuse of metadata. What metadata you collect, and when and how you collect it, will all depend on having a clear process mapped out before creating a data management planThis is by no means a simple task and will most likely require additional research support services to be done effectively. 

How can I record metadata?

Using something like an Excel spreadsheet can be a simple start. You can create a spreadsheet with columns for each type of metadata you want to record, allowing you to search your images or sort by a particular metadata type. Include unique filenames and the full path to a file will allow you to locate the image you need.

Image metadata in Excel spreadsheet
Image metadata in Excel spreadsheet

You can also use reference management software like Endnote or Zotero to record your image metadata. Create a custom source which includes fields for all the metadata elements you want to include in your record, and you can also tag your images to include information on themes or elements within the images. 

Stepping it up 

Managing a lot of metadata, both in terms of volume and number of fields, can quickly become very cumbersome in a spreadsheet. A relational database is a much more effective tool for managing larger amounts of related data, providing greater efficiencies and automation for your processes. 

Screenshot of a portion of the relationship map of the University Digitisation Centre's archive database
Portion of the relationship map of the University Digitisation Centre’s archive database

Other research data management tools like Mediaflux can also be used, but all come with considerable added complexity for setting up a solution. 

Photo “organising” apps

There are also a range of tools generally labelled as “photo organising” which can help you sort and find your images more easily than browsing folders. Apple Photos and Windows 10 Photos app are both included with their respective operating systemsApps like these can help improve organisation, but are limited in both functionality and scalability. 

Tropy is an interesting application that provides some useful indexing options and additional features that may be useful for humanities researchers. 

Omeka is often mentioned as an image management option, but it is primarily an exhibition tool. In order to add images and metadata to Omeka efficiently, you need to have organised everything before uploading the images. 

DAMS: what are they, and where can I get one?

A Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) is essentially a relational database linking images and other media with their metadataThey also have a range of functions that facilitate the typical processes that people employ for managing images. They are not, however, a magic solution to image management. They still need to be configured to suit your specific needs. 

Unfortunately, the days of standalone versions of DAMS software appear to be over, and it’s difficult to find anything that does not require setting up a server of some kind. The University of Melbourne does not have an enterprise DAMS server. Support services to help you develop a solution are somewhat limited if your research is not part of a specific project. Asking for help is the best thing you can do to help change this situation. 


Keep on top of it

Don’t treat your images as an afterthought. It’s easy to leave it too long to organise your image files, which can cause problems further down the track. Record and track your metadata as you collect the images to ensure you don’t miss key details. 

Track permission to reuse

Finding images is easy. Knowing whether you can reuse them can be much trickier. By tracking information about the copyright or licencing conditions attached to the images, you can save yourself some headaches when it is time to publish or submit your work. Revisit Thing 5 for some tips on copyright and finding images that you can repurpose. 

Backing up

Just as you would back up your thesis chapters or research data, make sure you back up your image files and your image management system.  

Learn more       

Images are data; managing images is just a subset of managing research data. There are tools and training available to help you with this: 

About the authors

Julie Cohen works as a Liaison Librarian within the Fine Arts and Music Team supporting researchers and students in the Creative Arts. She has degrees in Music and Arts and is a practicing musician with a background in Performing Arts. 

Sophie Kollo is a Liaison Librarian at the Architecture, Building and Planning Library, supporting researchers and students in the Built Environment disciplines. She is an enthusiastic advocate of referencing and is dedicated to helping faculty students navigate the complexity of copyright and images. 

Ben Kreunen is the Technical Support Officer for the University Digitisation Centre. He is a scientific photographer with 30 years of experience in providing imaging and technical support at The University of Melbourne. 


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Image credit: Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

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