Why you should think about thumbnails

My thumb

Selfie (thumbnail), by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I help artists write grant applications. If you are a practising artist or designer, or you run a grants program that they might apply to, read on…


References for artworks should include thumbnails.

At the moment, following standard referencing rules, a reference list for artworks might look something like this:

With thumbnails, the same list looks like this:

 Boy and girl against brick wall Unidentified photographer 1946, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, 3.5″ x 3.5″, Lee Harris Papers, Anacostia Community Museum, USA, PH 2003.7078.053. Published: Smithsonian Institution on Flickr Commons, 19 May 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/smithsonian/2583389433/
 Wistful girl with flowers, soldier in background Unidentified photographer ca. 1915, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, hand applied color, 13.6 x 8.7 cm, George Eastman House Collection, 1973:0126:0015. Published: George Eastman House on Flickr Commons, 3 November 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/2999562537/
 Young women with hat, stole and umbrella Unidentified photographer n.d., 200714701, Nova Scotia Archives. Published: Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr Commons, 30 October 2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nsarchives/15667281365/

Without the thumbnail, it is very, very difficult to tell which photograph you are talking about. With the thumbnail, it’s immediately obvious.

I’ve used photographs in this example because photographs can be difficult to cite.

Often, the photographer may not be known and there may be no title for the work. Artists sometimes deliberately do not give their artwork a title, or entitle them ‘untitled’ or give them numbers as titles. For instance, Jackson Pollock’s work, Blue Poles, was originally titled Number 11, 1952.

Every different type of art had different referencing (and captioning) requirements. When I worked at the National Gallery of Victoria, my colleague Jonathan Luker produced a guide to show how the caption for an artwork should appear on the website.

  • Sometimes, there were multiple artists, with different roles, such as fashion designers and the fashion manufacturer.
  • Some creators were anonymous, others had pseudonyms, while others were known by their artistic school or their organisation.
  • Printed works had folio numbers, and illuminated manuscripts might need to include page numbers.
  • Some groups of items might be able to be displayed as single objects, while others could only be displayed as ensembles.
  • Wind sculptures and other mobile works might have variable dimensions.

To display all the artworks on the web, we needed a single set of rules for the captions. The guide that Jon produced was a masterpiece of quiet consultation and reductive analysis. I think it ran to seventy pages.

The guide was built on one fundamental assumption: each caption would be displayed with an image of the artwork. That was a given, as captions make no sense in isolation. I think that the reverse holds true as well: artworks need thumbnails to form a complete reference.

This matters to me because I help artists write grant applications. If an artist is applying to an arts council, then they provide a folio of imagery or video. The process is very visual.

If, however, they are applying to a research council, the process is very text‑centric. They are expected to provide a publication list, a standardised list of their research outputs.

For an artist (and other practice-based researchers), that list should include their artworks. When they list their artworks, I think that they should include thumbnails. If other people are citing their work, they should include a thumbnail with their reference, too.

There are two main obstacles, though: copyright and convention.

Under Australian law (which is most relevant to me), every thumbnail needs copyright permission from the copyright holder, unless the copyright has expired. Getting copyright approval is no fun. Working out whether the copyright has expired is less than fun, too.

As part of her thesis, my partner published a database of Chinese-Australian Historical Images in Australia. She had to get copyright clearance for every single thumbnail. Without clearance, she couldn’t display the thumbnail. At the time, I remember the archivist on the project commenting that we shouldn’t really need copyright clearance for each thumbnail, as the thumbnail is an integral part of the reference to the work. I think that is true.

In other countries, such as the USA, fair use may allow people to use thumbnails in references. However, even there, standard conventions for references do not include thumbnails. Citation guides and citation software don’t include them.

For example, the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Guide provides comprehensive guidance, but there is no mention of thumbnails:

  • Artist’s last name, first name. Title of art work in italics. Date of art work. Institution where art work is housed (if known), city where housed if not already named. Title of printed source in italics. By Author of printed source. Place of publication: publisher, date. Page or plate/figure/slide number. Print.

Software like EasyBib might provide the option to add an annotation, but not a thumbnail.

The law is hard to change, but conventions get updated if enough people change their practice. If you are an artist, or you are referencing artworks, then consider adding thumbnails to your references.

If you do, here are some practical considerations that you’ll need to think about:

  • How big should the thumbnail be?
  • How will it appear in black and white (this applies to all graphics in grant applications)?
  • Where should it sit in relation to the text of the citation? Above? Below? To the left or the right?
  • Should you include credits for the photographer of the artwork? If so, where?

Of course, none of this is going to help if you create aural works, such as songs. They don’t lend themselves to thumbnail imagery.

Update: 28 May 2015

In December 2014, the Australian Copyright Council released an information sheet on the use of thumbnails, Thumbnail images (184 Kb PDF). I only noticed it just now.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

One Response to Why you should think about thumbnails

  1. Pingback: Link Round-Up: New Resources on the Literature Review

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