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Theater Production: Scene Design: About Visual Research

What is visual research?

Visual research is the process of identifying, gathering, and classifying images to support the construction, application, and understanding of visual culture.  Visual research reviews both primary sources (images from the period in question) and secondary sources ("visual reference" books and databases).  

This guide gathers examples of both primary and secondary sources for Set Design.  For additional visual reference sources see the Historic Costume: North America and Western Europe or the Historic Costume: 20th & 21st c. America & the UK research guides.


1. Divide your topic into categories using where, when, tone, etc.   For example:
My topic:  Vienna in the 18th century; a palace, interior bedroom.  It’s an opera.

What: Palace interiors
Where: Vienna
When: 18th century
Tone:  Luxurious 

2. Get background information -- Learn more about the place, the people who lived there, historical, religious and political setting, important music, art, literature, etc.
TIP: Use Grove Art Online for quick, authoritative background information:

Capital of Austria
Wien and Danube rivers
Near the Alps Carpathian mountains
Home to German kings, Holy Roman Emperors & Austrian emperors
Habsburg royal family made Vienna one of the most important centers of the Baroque and Rococo in northern Europe.

3. Expand your list of keywords, and add additional categories for different parts of your design:

What: Palace interiors, Household objects of the Hapsburgs, kings, etc. such as furniture, boxes, jewelry, mirrors, etc.  
Where: Vienna, Austria, Danube river, Wien River, Alps, Carpathian mountains
When: 18th century, 1700s,
Tone: Luxurious, Baroque, Rococo
Who: Holy Roman Emperors, Austrian Emperors, German Kings, Habsburgs

4. Search OBIS with a combination of SUBJECT HEADINGS and KEYWORD BOOLEAN.
Note the most common call numbers and browse those sections in the book stacks. 

More about Keyword searching

Gather call numbers

Keep track of frequently occurring call numbers and browse those areas of the library.  Art library call numbers are arranged by type of art:

N     More than one (ex: painting and drawing)
NA    Architecture
NB    Sculpture
NC    Drawing
ND    Painting
NE    Printmaking
NK    Decorative Arts
NX    Multimedia
SB    Gardens, landscape architecture
TR    Photography

Then subdivided by location:

NA                   Architecture
NA 1010          Austrian architecture
NA 1010 .V5    Austrian architecture in Vienna

Subjects and Keywords

Subjects and Keywords for finding heavily illustrated publications in all subjects. (Subjects and sub-headings can also be used in Keyword searches

Subject Headings Sub-headings More Sub-headings Keywords
Description and Travel Pictorial works Photographs "illustrated works"
Interior architecture In art Illustrations "exhibition catalogs"
Interior decoration Exhibitions     

Background sources