VREPS Interview with Heath Patten

Heath Patten

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position and how you got into the field of visual resources?
I have two B.A.s from Ohio State University with majors in history, anthropology/archaeology, and art history. My graduate studies at Ohio State produced an M.A. in Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology and an A.B.D. in Art History. Currently, I am the Visual Resources Curator for Oberlin College and Conservatory. I also have been a college lecturer in art history for 20 years, and I am currently an adjunct instructor at the Cleveland Institute of Art. I started in the visual resources field as the Assistant Curator for Oberlin College in 2002.

What is your favorite part of your work? Can you describe any project(s) you’re currently working on?
I enjoy having one foot in technical services and one foot in public services. This keeps my department’s focus flexible and organic. Two of my job’s responsibilities are Art Director for the Oberlin College Libraries and Program Director of O.C. Libraries’ traveling exhibits. Currently, Oberlin College is working on exhibitions (on-site and digital) about women’s suffrage and the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I am also working on the creation of a digital collection for our large glass lantern slide collection that will have student-curated exhibits featured through an Omeka site.

What does a typical work day look like for you?
A typical day for me is often quite varied. I sit on several college library committees on student worker supervision, maker space development, and educational program development, so I often have committee responsibilities. I also do scanning and digital photography for our special collections, branch libraries, and college archives as well as often fulfill outside requests for digital images. Additionally, I also manage student projects that require or involve digital image creation. During the day I may also be consulted on graphic design questions, exhibition design, and/or art installation, or be asked to give a lecture or teach a section on early photography techniques or photographers for a faculty member.

What were some challenges you came across when you first started out in the field of visual resources?
I was a little overwhelmed by metadata creation and what to develop in the development of the collection. I overcame these challenges by three simple means… READ, RESEARCH, and ASK QUESTIONS!

What skills do you use for your job that you didn’t learn while in school?
I did not have much experience managing a special collection and a separate digital photo lab.

Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
In 2018, Oberlin College named its main library after Mary Church Terrell, Oberlin alumna and African-American activist who championed racial equality and women’s suffrage. I played a major role in the creation of promotional and educational materials for the renaming ceremony and its associated events. I also was heavily involved in the design and marketing of a traveling exhibition about Mary Church Terrell.

What is something that most excites you about the field of visual resources?
I have enjoyed watching visual resources changing technology and formats — from 35mm slides and study prints to digital images and online databases and exhibit platforms. I am excited to see visual resources collections starting to expand to include the building of material collections. I am in the process of building one for Oberlin College libraries.

Where else do you seek professional development opportunities other than VRA?
Ohio has a digital initiatives group that offers some opportunities and other associated associations also offer opportunities, such as ARLIS/NA.

What other professional organizations are you a part of?
I belong to the Midwest Art History Society. I also have had memberships in the Archaeological Institute of America (A.I.A.) and the College Art Association (C.A.A.). I do find professional organizations highly valuable and they are becoming more important than ever before. My opinion is based on the fact that professional organizations are ways to boost skills and grow knowledge about one’s field. While they are obviously great ways to network, they also naturally generate opportunities for one to share ideas and collaborate with other professionals outside of one’s home institution.

Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for emerging professionals and students in this field?
I recommend immersing yourself in the field and seek out professional development to increase your knowledge base and skills.

What are some of your favorite things outside of work? What are some of your hobbies?
I have been a professional archaeologist for over two decades. I am also a published author of books and articles, avid traveler, collector of ephemera and obscura, and a devoted ghost hunter (I absolutely love exploring old buildings and cemeteries…remember I was trained as an archaeologist, so it makes sense, right?).

Reach out to Heath at 📧 hpatten@oberlin.edu or 👋 meet him at VRA 2019 in Los Angeles!


Feeling a bit overwhelmed or suffering from imposter syndrome in the Visual Resources field? Sign up to be a mentee in the VRA’s Year-round Mentorship Program! Learn more: http://vraweb.org/opportunities/mentorship/ or connect with other VREPS on Slack!

VREPS Interview with Heather Seneff

Heather Seneff

Can you tell us a little bit about your background, your current position and how you got into the field of visual resources?

I was a work-study student as an undergrad at Chatham College in Pittsburgh first assigned to work in the Chemistry Lab but was able to switch with a Chemistry major who was working in the Slide Collection! I was initially an English major but quickly became enamored with Art History (you can actually do this as a living!?–I had no idea!). After graduating from Chatham, I decided to pursue my Masters in Art History at the University of Maryland College Park, where I found work in the Art Slide Collection and then a full-time staff position in the School of Architecture’s Slide Collection with Mrs. Betsy Alley, an exemplar mentor! I worked with her for nearly ten years as an assistant, until a ruthless budget cut for the University (and the whole state) forced our Dean to make most of the staff in Architecture half-time. I sent out my resume and had a phone interview for a position at the Slide Collection in the Department of Art at Arizona State University, which was offered to me and accepted. So I packed up my belongings into my Camaro and drove across the country to Tempe, Arizona! I worked as the assistant to Lise Hawkos (another exemplar mentor–I have had the good fortune to work with very admirable and talented bosses!) for about ten years. It was then that I became involved in our local ARLIS chapter and then VRA.

Visual Media Center at the University of Denver

A position for a Director of the Slide Collection in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning (now the College of the Built Environments) at the University of Washington came up, which I applied for, and received an invitation to visit the UW and interview there. I was offered the position and moved to Seattle! After about ten years (there seems to be a pattern here!) at the University of Washington, my then-husband and I decided to relocate to Colorado so he could pursue a career opportunity; while that did not go well, a position at the University of Denver in their Visual Media Center at the School of Art & Art History opened up. I applied and interviewed and was offered the job! While working at the University of Denver, I pursued an MLIS from Emporia State University, which employs a “hybrid” method of online and on-site classes. There seemed to be some vague intention of folding the Visual Media Center into the library at first when I was first hired and I felt I could be more nimble at DU with the second degree. Luckily that never happened and the Visual Media Center is still at home in the School of Art & Art History!

What is your favorite part of your work? Can you describe any project(s) you’re currently working on?
I would have said database design and cataloging in my position at the University of Washington, where I implemented the MDID and devised a cataloging database in Microsoft Access (then to SQL). However, here at the University of Denver, I inherited a clumsily designed “Learning Object Management System” and an even more clumsy cataloging tool, with an incorrect application of VRA Core, so I don’t get to indulge my database jones here. I did, however, convince the DU library Metadata Initiative Librarian to design a better cataloging tool, a collaborative project between that librarian (who has now gone to Hawaii!), a library programmer, and myself. I presented on the project at VRA 2015, and we published a paper on the “Metadata Management System” (not my choice for a name! especially if you realize its acronym is DUMMS…) in the VRA Bulletin that same year.

The new cataloging database uses linked open data (which was my idea!) to access the vocabularies from the Getty and the Library of Congress. The database itself is based on Dublin Core, can be mapped easily to other systems, and the content can be exported into another program if that becomes necessary (something the old cataloging tool could not do–the designers didn’t think of it). So, I might say that at the University of Denver the most satisfying aspect of my work is writing and publishing. I recently had a chapter in a book on Mid-Century Modern sacred architecture published, which was an amazing experience and very informative about the publishing word! Dr. Anat Geva, an architecture professor at Texas A&M was the book’s editor and it finally came out on my birthday (coincidentally!) of 2018! At DU, I also enjoy working with my graduate student research assistants, of which I have four, more than any in my previous positions (though sometimes I can barely keep ahead of them!). I designed the “Metadata Management System” with them in mind as well, so that they can be trained to catalog with my operations and training manual relatively easily and that the program encourages them to catalog correctly rather than the opposite! But always, the best part of being a visual resources curator is getting to work with art!

What does a typical work day look like for you?
First I always check our two “smart” classrooms (which I guess means they each have a computer and digital projector!), since in the past I have found things like: DU IT “support” having duct-taped an extension cord to the wall, running up to the digital projector, because they couldn’t figure out a breaker had tripped; the $2500 screen in the other room had been ripped from the wall by DU facilities and leaned against the far wall during an extensive plumbing project in the Art Building; connections mangled by professors from other departments; glitter (I kid you not) scattered all over the floor by a sorority using the room after hours; and once a stuffed deer head was left behind; etc. When I first got to DU, there were three digital projectors mounted to the ceiling of each room; it was very satisfying to get them to understand that with digital images, you really only needed one machine to project two images! Also, I replaced the “Screen Goo” paint on the projection wall with real screens. After checking the poor classrooms and making sure everything works, I start checking my students’ work (both scanning and cataloging), uploading records to the “Learning Object Management System” that the faculty use to teach in class, cataloging and scanning things myself, and assigning new projects to the students. I use a whiteboard to keep track of what we are working on so the six of us don’t duplicate effort or get hopelessly confused on what stage of an assignment we are on.

The faculty bring me books and other print material to add to the collection on some days; other days they will e-mail me lists or new additions we should make. Our newest art historian is an Islamicist, so we have added loads of Islamic images for her, a steep learning curve for most of the graduate students. My (relatively) new half-time assistant and I do the bulk of that cataloging, with one stellar grad student. In my manual (which is in Wiki form on the internet and also in booklet form) I keep a series of pages on “Cataloging Non-Western and Difficult Things,” which assists the students (and myself!) with the extreme diversity of material we have to catalog. At any point during the day some troubleshooting is needed in the classrooms (always an emergency), or a dongle is needed for a Mac, or some image permissions questions crop up, or a professor needs a special image for a publication or presentation, or someone can’t make the public printer in the building print correctly.

What were some challenges you came across when you first started out in the field of visual resources?
The reluctance of some faculty to embrace the digital world was a challenge at the University of Maryland and then at Arizona State University. But that also made it an exciting time, when we were learning as curators to use technology and design systems that could be so productive in the teaching of art and art history. At ASU, Lise arranged for me to take training in Microsoft Access, which I just loved. We were still relying on copystands and film photography in those days and the hot, hot lights of the copystand and tediousness of it was a challenge to me, but I persevered and learned a lot about film and the process of photography. I occasionally used a copystand set up at the University of Washington (for a few of our senior faculty still wedded to slides), but so rarely that it wasn’t onerous. I quickly and happily embraced the flatbed scanners and the Nikon SuperCoolScan. Our faculty at DU are more digitally savvy now but I still continuously struggle with their inability to tell quality images from poor ones, good image sources from disreputable ones, and the complexity of intellectual property rights for images in the digital age.

What skills do you use for your job that you didn’t learn while in school?
All of it! I never learned photography at school or cataloging or web design or Photoshop–it was all learned in situ! There were no programs that taught people to be VR curators or how to use images in the classroom.

Looking back, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
My successful implementation of the MDID at the University of Washington, my designing of the SQL cataloging system there, my designing of the “DUMMS” in collaboration with the library at the University of Denver, my publications (including my most recent on intellectual property rights and New Media), my mentoring of students who go on to success in their own careers (in VR and in museum studies, and collection management, etc.).

What is one thing in the visual resources field that you think is lacking or missing?
Respect from our colleagues in the library world, the IT world, the classroom design world.

What is something that most excites you about the field of visual resources?
Images! Art! The annual VRA conference!

What other professional organizations are you a part of?
I belong to ARLIS also, but mostly out of a feeling of obligation. VRA is really the only organization that provides the materials and support and collegiality I need.

Do you have any words of advice or wisdom for emerging professionals and students in this field?
Be open minded! Embrace new systems and technologies when they can make teaching and learning about art more successful! Be nimble! Be rigorous catalogers (metadata technicians!) because just like a 35mm slide misfiled was lost forever, a poorly identified image will never be discovered either.

👋 Say hi to Heather at VRA 2019 in Los Angeles!


Feeling a bit overwhelmed or suffering from imposter syndrome in the Visual Resources field? Sign up to be a mentee in the VRA’s Year-round Mentorship Program! Learn more: http://vraweb.org/opportunities/mentorship/ or connect with other VREPS on Slack!

VRA Conference Guide + Tips

Headed to Los Angeles for #VRA2019? Below is your guide to before, during and after the VRA conference. We’ve also included some conference tips!

Before the Conference:

  • Register and don’t forget to add any tours or workshops to your schedule! Taking a Tour is a great way to get out of the hotel & meet other members while sightseeing! Attending any of the VRA Workshops will give you the opportunity to learn and discuss innovative topics, sometimes with a hands-on or interactive experience.
  • Pair up with a VRA Conference Mentor! Conference mentors will contact you ahead of the conference and make arrangements to meet you for coffee or lunch, etc. on the first or second day of the conference. Mentors will share tips for enhancing your conference experience and introduce you to other members to help you build your own network within VRA.
  • Download the Sched App on your smartphone or device to download the conference schedule. If you’d like to print your sched, click on the Print icon.
  • *Tip* Don’t forget to pack a sweater – conference rooms tend to be chilly; a refillable water bottle; an external charger for your phone – it’s no fun to sit by a wall or search for an outlet to charge your phone!

During the Conference:

  • *Tip* Remember to drink plenty of water and bring snacks to keep your energy up throughout the day and tie you over between meals. There will be coffee breaks and water will also be provided during the conference.
  • Meetup Lunch for New Members, 1st/2nd Time Attendees, VREPS, Mentors/Mentees, and Reviewers/Reviewees – If you haven’t received an RSVP please reach out to VREPS Co-Chair, Kendra Werst, knw2[AT]williams.edu
  • *Tip* Don’t be shy! Remember that some people are potentially out of their comfort zone and would welcome you joining their conversation or saying hi.
  • *Tip* Remember that you are a human and you need breaks! Conferences can be overwhelming with all the information and people so make time for decompressing! Whether it’s in the morning, afternoon or night. Also, make sure you go outside for fresh air once and a while.

After the Conference:

  • Follow up with new contacts via LinkedIn, Email, or even Twitter to grow your personal network. Reach out and say “Hey, it was great meeting you at VRA2019!” Check out the VRA’s Membership Directory.
  • While all those great ideas and experiences are fresh in your mind, transcribe any notes you took and reflect on your time at the conference. Most conference presentation slides will be posted to VRA’s Slide Share afterward.
  • Stay involved! Whether it’s joining VREPS on Slack, volunteering at the next annual conference, following up with your Mentor or joining a VRA committee! *Don’t forget to complete the post-conference survey provided by the VRA.