Matthew Lincoln, PhD Cultural Heritage Data & Info Architecture

The Things They Don’t Teach You: Image Rights

Today’s Chronicle article on the (maybe?) shifting direction of the Mellon Foundation brings up the now-ubiquitous question of graduate training in the humanities. Naturally, the digital humanities get a brief nod from Mellon VP Mariët Westermann, who notes:

“Not everyone’s going to love the digital humanities, nor probably does everyone have to, but it would be good to begin to build the opportunity to develop that competency right into doctoral education rather than waiting till 10 years out” from graduate school to do it.

I’m all for that. But this training need not be in digital methods alone.

Of the many expected competencies of an art historian, juggling image rights is as crucial as it is frustrating and pedestrian. Having gotten to the dreaded image rights stage of a book project this year, Shannon Mattern delegated the logistics to a graduate research assistant, and wrote out a detailed guide on how to manage the process, including a template request letter and instructions on how to record the status of each request. Rather than keeping this guide tucked away for the next book project, Mattern shared it in an eminently-bookmarkable post on her blog.1

It is this kind of institutional knowledge that UMD’s Graduate Art History Association (essentially, our department’s grad student organization) seeks to preserve for future cohorts of students. We host lunches on various graduate milestones (the comprehensive exams, the dissertation proposal, the first big conference paper, etc.) and archive reports on our on-line repository.

Organizing these events has itself been an educational and (usually) rewarding experience. Yet I think the more that faculty manage to weave this training directly into their graduate courses, the better. Had even one of my graduate seminars asked me to, say, draft a humanities grant proposal, rather than write up yet another research paper, I would have been much better equipped when I dove into my very first attempt at a grant last summer. (Alan Liu’s prospectus assignment for his graduate course Digital Humanities: Introduction to the Field is just one of many examples of this kind of assignment.)

What would a graduate-level assignment look like that asked students to organize a conference round table, edit a volume of contributed essays, or seek out obscure image rights or archival reproductions? I hope more graduate faculty begin to ask these questions. Far from reducing humanities graduate education to a professional degree, I think this approach would help students scope out the full range of forms humanistic scholarship can take, while better equipping them for their first wholly independent projects.

  1. Incidentally, I only happened upon her post because I volunteered to work as an editor-at-large for Digital Humanities Now — and so can you! 

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Cite this post:

Lincoln, Matthew D. "The Things They Don’t Teach You: Image Rights." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 30 Jun 2014,

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