I don’t often post explicitly about my experiences as a graduate student – but I want to let everyone know about the focus of my studies for the next four months. I am taking two courses that I hope will complement one another. One course is on Archival Access (description, MARC, DACS, EAD and theory). The other is on Information Visualization  over in the Computer Science  department.
My original hope was that in my big Information Visualization final project I might get the opportunity to work with some aspect of archives and/or digital records. I want to understand how to improve access and understanding of the rich resources in the structured digital records repositories in archives around the world. What has already happened just one week into the term is that I find myself cycling through multiple points of view as I do my readings.
How can we support interaction with archival records by taking advantage of the latest information visualization techniques and tools? We can make it easier to understand what records are in a repository – both analog and digital records. I have been imagining interactive visual representations of archives collections, time periods, areas of interest and so forth. When you visit an archives’ website – it can often be so hard to get your head around the materials they offer. I suspect that this is often the case even when you are standing in the same building as the collections. In my course on appraisal last term we talked a lot about examining the collections that were already present on the path to creating a collecting policy. I am optimistic about ways that visualizing this information could improve everyone’s understanding of what an archives contains, for archivists and researchers alike.
Once I get myself to stop those daydreams… I move on to the next set of daydreams. What about the products of these visual analytics tools? How do we captured interactive visualizations in archives? This seems like a greater challenge than the average static digital record (as if there really is such an animal as an ‘average’ digital record). I can see a future in which major government and business decisions are made based on the interpretation of such interactive data models, graphs and charts. Instead of needing just the ‘records’ – don’t we need a way to recreate the experience that the original user had when interacting with the records?
This (unsurprisingly) takes me back  to the struggle of how to define exactly what a record is in the digital world. Is the record a still image of a final visualization? Can this actually capture the full impact of an interactive and possible 3D visualization? With information visualization being such a rich and dynamic field I feel that there is a good chance that the race to create new methods and tools will zoom far ahead of plans to preserve its products.
I think some of my class readings will take extra effort (and extra time) as my mind cycles through these ideas. I think that a lot of this will come out in my posts over the next four months. And I still have strong hopes for rallying a team in my InfoViz class to work on an archives related project.
- Visualizing Archival Collections 
- ArchivesZ: Visualizing Archival Collections 
- Archival Context and Description – Taking It to the Next Level 
- NEH Digital Humanities Startup Grant News: Visualizing Archival Collections