Searchable Digital Image Library Under Development for the Web Here

December 14, 1995

By Jeffery Kahn,

Jacob Bastacky had a problem. Bastacky, who heads the Life Sciences Division's Lung Microscopy Group, has accumulated thousands of images of lung tissue. The image collection -- a research and reference database -- has grown over the years and now fills a five-foot-tall stack of file boxes in his office.

Finding a particular image is a surmountable problem for Bastacky but it is almost impossible for anyone else. Intent upon making this large photo archive more accessible, the researcher has become the first user of an online Image Library now being developed at the lab.

"Right now," says Bastacky, "we have about a thousand images in the online collection. That will double very soon. This system allows us to organize these images, to search and find individual images, and to view these images in several resolutions. What's more, because it is accessed through the World Wide Web, we can make the collection as widely available as we choose."

The Image Library is being developed by the Information and Computing Science Division's Imaging and Distributed Computing Group, which is led by Bill Johnston. Mary Thompson heads the project.

Thompson says the design of the Image Library accommodates a wide range of potential uses. Private collections of images can be created as well as public collections. Images can be stored in a central mass storage system or on a desktop computer. And, the World Wide Web allows public collections to be accessed from anywhere and on any kind of computer.

Says Thompson, "This is a research project that is in a test stage. Ultimately, it might become part of a labwide digital library. Also, it could be deployed as a set of portable tools that individuals could use with their own digital image archives."

Currently, Thompson is seeking several additional image collections. These collections would be put online and their owners given the opportunity to use and test the Image Library during its development stage. Those interested should check out the Image Library online and contact Thompson at X7408 or via e-mail at

More and more scientific data now consists of high-resolution digital images. Whether they originate in digital format or as prints that have been scanned, the starting point for an Image Library collection is a set of high-resolution digital images. The next step is for the collection owner to write a corresponding set of text files. Each image must have a companion text file. These files consist of a caption containing keywords that distinguish individual images from one another.

To install the collection, the owner navigates to the Image Library on the Web. Authorized individuals can use the online forms to submit their images, organize them into sets and subsets, and determine who has access to the collection.

When an image is submitted to the Image Library, Thompson's software automatically stores it and creates a set of four lower resolution images. It also reads every text file and creates a keyword database that makes it possible to find specific images within a collection.

To find an image, individuals may use a form on the Web, typing in keywords to launch a search. The Image Library responds by finding all images that match the search terms and displaying each in thumbnail size. Next, the person browsing the collection is given the option of viewing higher resolution versions of each image. Individuals who are unfamiliar with the contents of an image collection also can opt to simply look at all the "thumbnails" in that set.

The Image Library allows collection owners to add new images, to rearrange the directories in which they are organized, and to edit text files. This leaves the control of the collection in the hands of its owner.

Jacob Bastacky says the Image Library not only solved a problem but also has opened up new possibilities. Bastacky's research group not only uses Image Library to improve access to their own private collection but also has published a public collection of images.

This educational project, called the Lung Lab Tour, includes a set of images of the lung made with the Scanning Electron Microscope.

"Lung Tour is educational but it also is an experiment," says Bastacky. "The idea is to make what you see online mimic what you see during a microscope experiment. First, you start with a lower magnification image, find something in that image that is of interest, then zoom in at higher and higher magnifications, all the way down to the level of individual cells. I call it hyperimage databasing but the important point is that this is a computer filing system where images are linked in a logical manner. In the future, we would like to organize our data like this."