Session 13: Perspectives on Visual Archives

Moderator: Karen Gracy (Kent State University)
Studying the Visual Epistemologies of Digitization: A Theoretical and Methodological Framework / Zack Lischer-Katz (Rutgers University)

Following an intense period of digital library research in the 1990s, the last decade and a half has seen digitization emerge out of an experimental access technology to become accepted as a technique for preservation. While the standards and best practices for digitizing a range of visual materials are still developing, many media archives conduct digitization projects as part of their ongoing preservation work. However, copies are never neutral representations of their originals, but depend for their “quality and nature” on the judgments of preservationists (Edmundson, 1998). In effect, access to the visual documents of the past will be increasingly shaped by the judgments made by preservationists today. Recent scholarship has begun to conceptualize digitization as a social phenomenon in itself, suggesting that digitization projects embed traces of their cultural and historical circumstances in digital copies (Mak, 2014) and that resulting collections of digital surrogates should be treated as archival records (Conway, 2014). Taken together, these conceptualizations of digitization, and the current ascendance of digitization in remediating access to visual documents in our society, leads to important questions about the epistemological conditions in which digitization is practiced: What assumptions do preservationists hold about the nature of knowledge and how do they construct knowledge around their practices of digitization? In investigating these questions, my dissertation research seeks to gain new understanding into the epistemic assumptions of preservationists, as well as how digitization emerges as an institutionally-sanctioned and legitimized practice.

My research sets out to offer a rich description of the knowledge processes and epistemic assumptions around the digitization of visual materials. Three New York City-based media archives were selected as sites for conducting semi-structured interviews and participant-observation with preservationists directly engaged in sites of digitization projects. This research incorporates a discourse analytic approach to study the discourses of preservation in documents for digitizing visual materials (such as standards and specifications), which is integrated with an interpretive phenomenological approach (Smith, et al., 2009) that analyzes preservationists’ lived experiences of digitizing visual materials.

This presentation will outline theoretical and methodological frameworks for my ongoing dissertation research. The first part will discuss the relevant literature to conceptualize the nature of visual information and the remediation of visual documents. In the second part, I will discuss issues related to my theoretical framework, which is situated in the sociology of knowledge of Berger and Luckmann (1966), and outline my methodological framework. In the final section of this presentation I will report on the initial analyses of the data collected and discuss emergent implications for archival studies.


Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Anchor.

Conway, P. (2014, April 20). Digital transformations and the archival nature of        surrogates [Electronic copy]. Archival Science, in press.

Edmundson, R. (1998). A philosophy of audiovisual archiving. Paris: UNESCO.

Mak, B. (2014). Archaeology of a digitization. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 65(8), 1515-1526.

Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., & Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretive phenomenological analysis. Los Angeles: Sage.

Limitations and Improvements in the Archival Management of Photographs / Gina Rappaport (University of Maryland)


Describing Photographs Using the KBI Theory / Melvin Hale (Emporia State University)

Photographs have routinely been afforded second-class status in library studies and archival studies, as opposed to that of primary resource. Photographs, particularly documentary photographs, are potentially rich repositories of cultural information, but due in part to their non-linear construction and multi-subject matter content, as objects of classification, they have been overlooked and/or used primarily for topical and illustrative purposes throughout the social sciences.

In this presentation I will introduce the KBI theory of visual perception, and demonstrate how it can be used as an epistemological tool to examine and produce reliable knowledge claims from photographic artifacts. Photographs often suffer from lack of contextualization. The KBI construct, comprised of know, believe, and imagine, will be used to unpack several documentary photographs. KBI holds that visual perception is an individual construct, and that ways of seeing incorporate a priori empirical knowledge, heuristic beliefs, and aesthetic contemplations. The archivist can produce rich narratives from photographic material by situating the narrative in a format that is compatible with visual thinking.