15 Years Image Archive Online (1/3)

Lesezeit: 11 Min.

On 6 March 2006, our web image database “Image Archive Online” (http://ba.e-pics.ethz.ch) was launched. However, almost 10 years had to pass before it was ready: with the first digitisation and database attempts, “crazy” network ideas, project crises and the construction of the physical picture archive. We look back on more than 15 years of history in three parts.

1. The iconic and digital turn of the ETH Library (1997-2006)

1 The pilot project Vip@r as a virtual image network (1997-2000)

Greater visibility, better access for users (searching as well as the online access) and enlargement of the customer base are and have always been the overriding goals of (web) image databases. The ETH Library, under the leadership of Rudolf Mumenthaler, then Head of Special Collections, began as early as 1997 (!) to deal with the digitisation of images and their capture in an electronic image database and purchased the Zurich image management software ImageFinder in 1999. The library catalogue was out of the question because of limited management and usage options (including asset management, rights management, image viewing and ordering). This has not changed significantly to this day.

As a reminder: the so-called e-journals, i.e. parallel editions of printed scientific journals in electronic form, had just begun to establish themselves at that time and the World Wide Web (WWW) was still in its infancy. They were the most important change for scientists and scientific libraries (Keller 2003).

In September 1999, the ETH Library, together with five Zurich archives, museums and collections, started a ten-month pilot project to create a joint online searchable image database, a virtual image archive (vip@r). The participants were: Archives of Contemporary History, Kunsthaus Zürich, Museum für Gestaltung, Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv and Schweizerische Stiftung für die Photographie (today: Fotostiftung Schweiz).

The pilot experiment pursued its goals on two levels:

  1. The institutions aim to improve the management and sustainable use of their originals
  2. Together as a network, the cataloguing and joint offering of the images via the WWW is to be tested.

Based on the positive experience of the ETH Library with ImageFinder, the test was carried out on this network-compatible software with a web interface.

ImageFinder input mask, ca. 2001 (screenshot)

The result was presented in November 2000 at conferences in Berlin (EVA) and Munich as well as at the conference “Scan oder Mikrofilm: ja, nein, beides?” (Scanning or microfilm: yes, no, both?) jointly organised by the ETH Library and the VSA (Verein Schweizer Archivarinnen und Archivare).

The ETH Library’s activities in the field of image digitisation and database acquisition met with great interest. Representatives of numerous institutions, including the Museum of Transport in Lucerne, the National Museum and Pro Helvetia, as well as many ETH-internal organisations, were given a guided tour or consultation in 2000. The public attention that the project received was also expressed in the appointment of Rudolf Mumenthaler as a member of the “Groupe Photo”, a specialist group of Memoriav, the association for the preservation of audiovisual cultural assets in Switzerland, which is dedicated to drawing up recommendations for the archiving and digitisation of photographic holdings.

Goal number 1, image management, is still a desideratum at many institutions. The common web presence, on the other hand, is already taken care of by some so-called aggregators such as the new Swiss union catalogue Swisscovery, Europeana – the virtual library for Europe’s scientific and cultural heritage, subject-specific platforms such as arthistoricum.net or simply the “big ones” such as Google Images (enter search term and “site:e-pics.ethz.ch” for our images) and Wikimedia Commons (homepage, ETH Library’s site).


2. The iconic turn: the physical Image Archive of the ETH Library is founded (2000-2001)

“The year 2000 began for the Special Collections with a significant acquisition: in the first week of the year, the Directorate decided to take over the entire photo holdings of the former Comet photographic agency as part of bankruptcy proceedings. As a result, the ETH Library became one of the largest public photo collections in Switzerland, as it were, overnight.” (Annual Report of the ETH Library, 2000, p. 17).

Anniversary after anniversary: 20 years of picture archives!

We are celebrating another anniversary! 20 years ago on 1 March 2001, the “Image Archive” was founded in the course of the reorganisation of the Special Collections Division. The collections of views, portraits and slides, which had previously been maintained on the margins, were united in this new team (4.1 full-time positions and 80 full-time positions for student assistants) together with the newly acquired holdings of the photographic agency Photo Comet AG. This was to take into account the significance of the image as source material in science in particular and as an information medium in general (iconic turn), which has grown considerably in recent years. Side question: What would the internet, what would the social media be without images? Every post “demands” an adequate illustration, so to speak.

The following years were marked, among other things, by the organisational development as well as the development of know-how in the library sector and in the field of a digital image archive, including in the areas of image acquisition, digitisation, image processing and other technical aspects. Instructions, procedures and standards on various aspects were developed and tested in practice. Cabinets for the storeroom also had to be procured and rolling shelving systems planned. Conservation best practices were created as well as signing guides and cataloguing rules.

Heim, Arnold: Assuan, the kiosk of Philae, from the time of the Roman emperors, flooded by the Nile dam, 25.12.1926. Africa flight with René Gouzy and Walter Mittelholzer, 1926-27 (Dia_006-054, http://doi.org/10.3932/ethz-a-000024363)

And throughout the set-up phase, images were also always indexed in ImageFinder and larger digitisation projects were handled with external service providers. At the end of the first year of operation, ImageFinder already contained 27,955 data records, of which 13,833 included a digitised image. Many institutions (e.g. Tropical Institute Basel, Swiss Social Archives, NZZ) are now seeking advice on the digitisation and indexing of images.

And all along it was clear on a strategic level that these efforts were mainly aimed at making the ETH Library’s image holdings known to the public and accessible online. Soon the first fruits showed here!

A big thank you goes to the colleagues who have done solid work and laid a valuable foundation for the picture archive: Christine Bärtsch, Susanne Schneider, Jasmine Lernpeiss and Susanne Zimmermann.


Annual reports of the ETH Library (in German) 2000 and 2001.

3) E-Pics in ETH World

New start within ETH Zurich (2001-2002)

As can be read in a footnote, “there has been no news about the Swiss collaborative project VIPAR since 2001” (Naumann 2006). After the brilliant start, the collaborative idea had faded into the background. The lack of sponsorship proved to be a major obstacle.

In the meantime, however, new options had opened up throughout ETH, especially since interest had also been expressed within ETH during the presentations in autumn 2000. The large-scale infrastructure project “ETH World”, with the aim of building a virtual campus, was just getting underway. The ETH Library was able to enter the construction of a dissertation server, the E-Collection (today: Research Collection), as well as the construction of an image database as a further project at ETH World.

On 3 September 2001, the project management of ETH World approved the project “Interactive Picture Information System for Teaching and Research at ETH Zurich”, in short EPICS (ETH Picture Information System).

Home page of E-Pics Image Archive Online, 2006 (screenshot)

E-Pics was to be managed centrally by the ETH Library and be accessible to all users in ETH World via web browsers. In a first step, interfaces for the web interface and the search engine were created for the existing ImageFinder image database of the ETH Library. This search engine was developed by the Institute for Information Systems at ETH Zurich and was intended, among other things, to make it possible to search for similar images [déjà!].

Two features were to be implemented with the web connection: on the one hand, the possibility of researching and ordering images via the web (initially for the clientele of ETH Zurich) and, on the other hand, the possibility for lecturers at ETH to compile “slide shows” for lectures.

Results page (screenshot)

With the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture gta (Prof. Werner Oechslin and Prof. Andreas Tönnesmann) and the Werner Oechslin Library Foundation in Einsiedeln, the use of the interactive online image database in teaching and research was tested in the winter semester 2002/03 to the participants of a course online via the WWW for academic work.

Project Crisis: Implementation Problems and Changes in Requirements (2002)

In the middle of 2002, however, E-Pics ran into a crisis caused by implementation problems with the supplier and changes in the catalogue of requirements. In the end, the project was prevented from failing because the entire project organisation was reorganised and the first of two new project phases was successfully completed. At the end of 2002, the pilot version of the image database was accepted. The digitised stock of the Image Archive could now be accessed via a website and, in addition, appropriate presentations could be created for teaching (phase 1).

Information Image (Screenshot)

Restart 2: E-Pics Phase 2 (2003-2006)

In phase 2, the requirements were re-evaluated based on the results of phase 1. The preliminary study showed that the original goals of E-Pics, namely the establishment of an image information system both for the image archive and for use in teaching and research, could only be achieved through a distributed solution.

The search for a database provider

At the beginning of 2004, the main study of the “E-Pics 2” project was started. After defining the requirements for the target system, a suitable provider had to be found for the implementation of the necessary measures, whereby a pre-selection was made here on the basis of information from the previously organised specialist conference “Multimedia Databases in Practical Comparison”. Of the eight providers who received the very extensive catalogue of requirements, three were invited to present their proposed solutions. At the end of 2004, the Cumulus system from the Canto company, together with a web interface developed by the Swiss company Interaktion, was finally awarded the contract.

Detailed view of the image (screenshot). Note the watermark!

This choice was very unusual at the time. With the Digital Asset Management System (DAM) Cumulus, a proprietary and non-specialist application was brought into the house. Cumulus originally came from pre-press and at that time “Quelle” catalogues and the like were still produced with it. Unfortunately, the proprietary and thus closed system is still often a disadvantage in the library and archive environment. However, we still work with Cumulus and it is one of the few systems that is very powerful and that fulfils our various requirements, e.g. setting up separate catalogues, very well.

Implementation Phase (2005)

In 2005, the main focus of this project was on installing the system and preparing it for use in the picture archive. Among other things, the data fields for cataloguing the image holdings were determined and at the same time the indexing rules were adapted to the technical possibilities of the database. The migration of the 60,000 images and metadata from the old to the new database proved to be the greatest challenge. Here, the individual image stocks were analysed before the migration with regard to the type and degree of indexing, and detailed migration rules were then worked out in collaboration with the IT services. After successful migration into the new system, the individual image holdings as well as the keyword directories were checked for correctness and completeness and corrected if necessary.

Advanced search (screenshot). Was later (unfortunately) turned off by the manufacture

In December, the old database was taken out of service. For the storage of the digital data, the system was connected to the Storage Area Network (SAN) of the ETH IT Services in order to achieve the highest security and scalability. A first version of the web client was tested in several rounds. The planned online presence of the Image Archive was postponed in order to improve both the design and the user-friendliness. The external company commissioned to do this also designed a digital watermark for the online publication.

The launch of “Image Archive Online” on 6 March 2006

On 6 March 2006, the first e-pics web catalogue with “Image Archive Online” (http://ba.e-pics.ethz.ch) was launched with about 20,000 images. A milestone! When designing the new web interface, the focus was on usability. The entry page (http://www.e-pics.ethz.ch) was also launched. From here, the various partial databases would be accessible at a later date.

Collective basket for orders (screenshot). There was no download yet!

The web functionalities required for use in institutes were also developed or transferred to the new design. These include the uploading of images, cataloguing in the web browser, downloading of different image resolutions, saving and sending collections, etc.

Why “Image Archive Online”?

And why is the web image database called “Image Archive Online” and not simply “Image Archive” like all subsequent E-Pics catalogues? The intention was to express that this is the online presence of an Image Archive that also exists physically.

Enquiry(!) / order form (screenshot). Note the small print at the bottom right…!

Other, national platforms came later

Other well-known and much-used national platforms went online later. E-Periodica, the portal for retro-digitised scientific journals, went online in January 2007 with Baugedächtnis Schweiz Online. e-rara, the platform for digitised prints from Swiss institutions, will catch up on its 10-year anniversary last year on 20 April 2021. Both platforms are operated and hosted by the ETH Library. The time was now also ripe for new forms of sponsorship…

A big thank you also goes to the colleagues who have significantly shaped E-Pics: Rudolf Mumenthaler, Kai Jauslin, Nadine Grubenmann and Christian Weymann.

A big general thanks goes to Rudolf Mumenthaler and Wolfram Neubauer, without whose visionary ideas, courage and decisiveness neither the picture archive nor E-Pics would have come into being.


Part 2 follows on 23 April 2021, when we report on how the image platform E-Pics and its largest catalogue Image Archiv Online are establishing and developing.

Teilen mit:

DOI Link: https://doi.org/10.35016/ethz-cs-14921-en

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  1. August Berlinger
    Saturday, 6 March 2021

    WOW ––– Fünfzehn ––– voll in der Pubertät ––– undwas nun 😉

    Auf jeden Fall: genug Puste um die Geburtstagskuchenkerzen auszublasen !!

    Alles Gute – August Berlinger

  2. Rudolf Mumenthaler
    Tuesday, 9 March 2021

    Danke für diesen Blick zurück und die Würdigung der Entstehung von e-pics, Bildarchiv online und des Bildarchivs der ETH-Bibliothek! Da kommt einiges zusammen, und es ist schön, dass die damaligen Ideen und Projektarbeiten zu einem so nachhaltigen und sehr erfolgreichen Ergebnis geführt haben. Ein herzlicher Dank auch von meiner Seite (als Initiator) an alle bisherigen und aktuellen Mitarbeiter*innen, die das möglich gemacht haben und weiterhin möglich machen. Etwas ist mir beim Rückblick aufgefallen: es lohnt sich, aus einem Pilotprojekt die richtigen Schlüsse zu ziehen. Und es lohnt sich, an einer Sache dran zu bleiben. Es brauchte drei grössere Anläufe, bis die richtige Form gefunden wurde. In diesem Sinn wünsche ich den Jubilaren weiterhin fruchtbares Wirken.

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