May 19, 2015 - Comments Off on In Process | InfoVis & Primary Source Research

In Process | InfoVis & Primary Source Research

In Process is a blog series that highlights the activities and experiences of current archival studies students in the Los Angeles area. Check in every two weeks, for grad students’ insights and fresh perspectives on new and emerging trends, issues, and events in the field. This week, we are featuring a post by a new professional, Lisa Bechtold. 

By Lisa Bechtold Social_Network_Analysis_Visualization Since graduating two years ago, I have spent much of my time thinking about the challenges of archival practice and looking for more effective ways to access primary materials. Digital Libraries offer greater access than ever before by connecting us to resources all around the world. With this advantage, comes a new set of challenges. How can we engage with this myriad of information in order to meaningfully analyze and comprehend it for historical research?

Finding Aids and Digital Libraries are traditionally based in textual content and rely on the keyword search as a point of access- a method that will most certainly continue to be a cornerstone of archival research. Yet, we should recognize its limitations in order to more thoroughly exploit our material history.

The keyword search, which functions on a hierarchical scale of “relevancy” terms, restricts the scope of available resources, displaying a limited number of results, often skewing the initial impression of available resources. Furthermore, scrolling, paging, and fragmenting add cognitive overhead to the task of analysis and comparison. This mode of access limits information exploration, making it difficult for researchers to gain a macro view of the information, to locate germane resources, and to track the evolution of their own knowledge and theories across domains.

How can we gain a macro view of archival resources in Digital Libraries? How can we “explore” and “discover” this information in digital forums? I see Information Visualization (IV) and analysis as the new frontier in primary source cataloging and research. It has the ability to construct a virtual Digital Library around a group of primary resources by identifying and following connections derived from preexisting archival description. The textual content of an item or collection is translated into spatial representations that can then be browsed and analyzed by researchers in ways that avoid language processing and reduce analysts’ mental workload.

To understand how IV works, you have to understand the analytical process that occurs when engaging with visual maps. Humans have spatio-cognitive functions in the retinal “textons,” or units of texture perception, which can quickly parse through complex visual stimuli. Through an acute sensitivity to contrasts and wavelengths, this function enables faster perceptual processes when examining large amounts of data. Notably, this function occurs relatively effortlessly within the visual cortex, independent of cognition, and does not add to the cognitive workload.

This process is engaged through IV. Imagine a map, as if looking up into the night sky, where crystalline structures create a web, each component of which represents a network of items all connected to one another based on similarity. Now imagine each node, like the hub of a spider’s web, is an archival object, whose position, shape and color represent its relationship to other items in the collection. These visual displays enable the researcher to view thousands of items at once within a single frame through compressed representations of data. Resulting in 2D and sometimes 3D forms, the maps are interactive in order to offer details on demand.

The spatial aspect of IV simulates real world navigation. In terms of the archival space, IV has the potential to reconnect researchers with the materiality of digitized objects and with the logical and spatially dependent organization indicative of material’s informational value. As Digital Libraries proliferate and researchers are discouraged from engaging with the actual material, visual maps offer navigation that simulates the “dig,” as if digging through the actual boxes, which can reveal unexpected and rich information.

I am interested in the potential of IV for this site of crucial interface between researcher and resources. There is a lot of work and study to be done in this field. More to come...

Lisa Bechtold in a freelance archivist and publisher living in Los Angeles. She graduated from CGU in 2012 with a Masters in History & Archival Studies. For inquiries, contact her at

Published by: Los Angeles Archivist Collective in In Process

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