Background Literature

Prior to developing new methods for this study, Rockman et al researchers reviewed the existing literature on digital catalogues, including usability studies, formative and summative evaluations of catalogues, reviews of the catalogues, and the final report produced by the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI).1 This literature review provided important context for embarking on a new evaluation of digital catalogues.

The OSCI final report provides a valuable overview of the challenges and lessons learned by the J. Paul Getty Museum plus nine other museums funded by the Getty Foundation to create some of the first digital catalogues. The report summarizes key insights about the catalogue creation process and provides an overview of three technology approaches for organizing and publishing catalogue content. A similar production-side perspective on the NGA’s Dutch Paintings catalogue is presented in Jennifer Henel’s 2017 article for Visual Arts Research2 and in evaluations and design reports generated by consulting firm Design for Context to aid the development of the PMA’s Johnson catalogue.3,4 Understanding how digital catalogues are produced and some of the technological workings behind the scenes is helpful for interpreting the end product that users interact with.

Digital catalogue production is a highly iterative process that brings together multiple museum departments in ongoing conversations. Content, design, and technology all must be considered together. To achieve this, museum staff of different specialties collaborate more closely than they might in the production of a print catalogue. The technological platform chosen influences the look and functionality of the final catalogue, as well as the ways it interacts with the parent website. In terms of cost, the upfront investment for a museum’s first digital catalogue may be considerable, but once the technology interface, staff responsibilities, and work flow are established, subsequent catalogues can be produced for significantly less. While most catalogue users are unaware of all the moving pieces behind the scenes, reviewing this information helped the evaluation team understand the various influences on the final design and content. The NGA’s catalogues, for example, utilize museum collection pages from the larger parent website as art entries pages in the catalogue, with significant effects on catalogue traffic. (See Appendix A: Further Analyses — The Unique Structure of the NGA’s Online Editions for more information on this catalogue structure and its implications.) Having this type of background knowledge on the catalogues was also helpful for considering study participants’ suggestions for catalogue features and the constraints that might act on these.

The OSCI final report and other catalogue literature also provide important information on catalogue users, the area that this report seeks to expand. Reviewing these resources allows us to look at how the catalogues have been received in the past and whether opinions are changing with time. Many findings from past studies have remained consistent, such as the way users assess the scholarly value of digital catalogues. The name of the museum continues to convey some level of trust, but users also look for established conventions such as peer review and proper citation format. Users also want to see authors’ names and access footnotes easily. The content and features that users seek in digital catalogues have also shown consistency from past studies until now. Interest in the catalogues is driven largely by interest in specific artworks, and use focuses heavily on the images provided. Large percentages of visitors are also using the catalogues for teaching material. Participants care greatly about being able to download content for offline use, but at the same time expect much more than a digitized version of a print catalogue. They want digital publications to use technology tools to transform the user experience in dynamic ways. Finally, the challenges for marketing the catalogues effectively have also persisted. Search engine optimization (SEO) and listing in academic databases are key to increasing the visibility of digital catalogues and helping them to take their place among other scholarly resources.

Other user opinions, however, appear to have changed with time. An evaluation of digital catalogues by SFMOMA and the Walker Art Center in 20165 and a 2017 review6 of the NGA’s Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries both focus on users’ concerns regarding digital catalogue permanence and hesitations users have in citing online materials. Our study found, however, that users have little hesitation about citing digital works and accept that digital resources will change over time. (See Do users have confidence in the catalogues’ scholarship?) They are still interested in permanence but have found solace in the fact that some museums offer archived versions of the catalogues and permanent links to content.

User ideas about catalogue design are also likely to continue changing as aesthetics and conventions change. The book-like design of the AIC catalogues once appealed to scholars who wanted reassurance that digital catalogue content was of the same caliber as printed catalogue content. We found that few users still prefer this format. In another example, minimalist web design has become increasingly popular in recent years, but not all users are in tune with its methods, which sometimes hide or reduce navigation elements to ensure a cleaner screen. (Read more about book-like navigation and users’ perception of navigation tools in Do users understand how to navigate the catalogues and find content of interest?)

Finally, some bigger-picture questions raised in catalogue reviews were used to spark dialogue in our focus group discussions.7,8 What collections and objects should be singled out for inclusion in digital catalogues? What kinds of scholarly content do readers expect and want from digital catalogues? What are the implications of a catalogue that can be updated as ideas and information change? For participants’ reflections on some of these topics, see the various sections in the Scholarly Content section of this report.


  1. “Museum Catalogues in the Digital Age: A Final Report on the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative,” The Getty Foundation, published 2017, accessed on October 1, 2019,
  2. Jennifer Henel, “New Approaches to Old Art: The Launch of NGA Online Editions’ Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century,Visual Arts Research 43, no. 1 (2017): 8–16.
  3. Design for Context, “John G. Johnson Exhibition, Scholarly Site Requirements & Design Analysis,” user study and design report produced for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, March 2, 2017.
  4. Duane Degler and Michael Owens, “PMA Johnson Usability Study: Observations and Findings,” evaluation report produced for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, December 21, 2017.
  5. Laura Mann, “Online Scholarly Catalogues: Insights from OSCI,” presentation at Museums and the Web Conference, Los Angeles, California, April 6–9, 2016.
  6. Jodi Cranston, review of Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, by Miklos Boskovits and Jason di Resta, The Art Bulletin 99 no. 2 (2017): 186–189, DOI: 10.1080/00043079.2017.1304640
  7. Jill O’Neill, “Have You Looked at This: NGA Online Editions,” The Scholarly Kitchen, published October 27, 2014, accessed May 29, 2019,
  8. Anne Collins Goodyear, “The Getty Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI),” CAA Reviews, College Art Association, accessed June 21, 2019, CrossRef DOI: 10.3202/