Data Epistemologies and Ways of Knowing

“Edison could tell a soprano from Basso Baritone or Tenor & each from another…by looking at record thru a microscope”  -from Paul Israel’s biography of Thomas Edison

While empirical research has confirmed that digital tools and technologies are fundamentally changing how disciplinary scholars work with digital collections [1],  the inverse of this relationship has received little attention.  Are digital collections changing to support the needs and emerging practices of scholars?  Are interfaces, aggregate thumbnail displays, query mechanisms, search terms, types of content, download options, etc enabling scholars to work in these spaces?   As the recent IMLS project “Always Already Computational” grant proposal notes,  “Predominant digital collection development focuses on replicating traditional ways of interacting with objects in a digital space.” [2]  Indeed, much of the research exploring interactions with, and use of, digital collections does not attend to the space of user interaction as a potential site of meaning-making. [3]

My doctoral research focused on this problem area to understand how historians use digitized archival photographs as evidence in their scholarly activities. [4]  An underlying objective of my research was to explore the humanistic practices that scholars bring to bear on non-textual archival objects such as digitized photographs in an attempt to understand whether and how “ways of knowing” have shifted in digital research environments.  I wanted to understand what mattered to historians across dimensions of their overall experience, foregrounding the space of interaction. [5]  Conversely, I also wanted to understand the possible implications of interacting with digitized images as forms of data.  For example, did it matter that historians might privilege things like technical metadata in their interpretations, aspects that might have been invisible to them in print/analog environments?

Don Ihde, a philosopher of technology, has written compellingly about the hermeneutic qualities of scientific instruments, and how these tools can shape and mediate our perceptions.  Interestingly, Ihde describes a research scenario from a third-order perspective, describing the different players in the system (the scientist, the laboratory, the instruments, and the object(s) of study) as parts interacting in the construction of the story of scientific research.   “The laboratory not only prepares inscriptions -but it is the place, the site, where things – scientific objects – are prepared or made readable.” [6]  How do our tools structure and/or facilitate the telling of our stories?

This question is an important counterpoint to the evolving “collections as data” imperative and I’d like to think, is motivated by a similar point of provocation.  While we consider the possibilities in building computationally-aware platforms that can compute all kinds of “data”,  can we also explore ways to document the pathways and actions that our computational tools and techniques afford to us? To make visible what often becomes hidden in the abstract space of computation?  I’m angling here for an approach that captures how we know what we know – an “epistemology of data” perspective.

To the extent that we have transitioned from a scholarship of fixed representations to a scholarship of dynamic digital traces,  how we as information workers prime and prune  these traces is of enduring interest.  Embedding self-reflexive modes into our spaces of interaction can help us to see how technology participates in the equation. More to the point of this post, incorporating self-reflexive design into the building of computational spaces can potentially reveal much about how tools structure our practices, both in scholarly “ways of knowing” and in every day life.

[1] Rutner, J. & Schonfeld, R. (2012).  Supporting the changing research practices of historians, Final Report from ITHAKA S+R; Chassanoff, A. (2013).  Historians and the use of primary source materials in the digital ageThe American Archivist 76(2), 458-480.

[2] IMLS Grant Proposal (2017). “Always already computational: Collections as data,” Disclosure: I am participating as a current “partner” on this grant.

[3] Two notable exceptions in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS) are: Bates, M. (2003).  The cascade of interactions in the digital library interfaceInformation Processing and Management 38(3), 381-400;  Lee, C.A. (2012). Digital curation as communication mediation.  In A. Mehler, L. Romary, & D. Gibbon (Eds.), Handbook of technical communication (pp. 507-530). Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.

[4] Chassanoff, A. (2016).  Historians’ experiences using digitized archival photographs as evidence (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database. (UMI No.10251831).

[5] In the LIS literature, digital collections use is often examined through quantitative measures of access to resources (e.g., transaction logs, web analytics) or qualitative analysis of scholarly preferences for resource access (e.g., are scholars retrieving materials through print or electronic methods?)   Such approaches tell us little about how scholars interact with and use digital collections.

[6] Ihde, D. (1999). Expanding hermeneutics: Visualism in science. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.



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