Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity

Everyone knows that age-old expression, “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” right?  Martyn Jessop in “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” expands this expression and argues that digital visualization is a way to not only transmit and teach those “thousand words”, but also a way to discover new knowledge from those underlying messages.  Jessop sets out to explain that digital visualization is a scholarly methodology, demonstrate that the use of visual methods and sources is not a new phenomenon in the humanities, and provide steps needed in order to further acceptance of digital visualization by the academic world.

Digital visualization is more than just an illustration and is a scholarly methodology.  Jessop states, “An illustration is intended merely to support a rhetorical device (usually textual) whereas a visualization is intended either to be the primary rhetorical device or serve as an alternative but parallel (rather than subordinate) rhetorical device.”[1]  Digital visualization is another medium where scholars can teach others as well as research and discover new knowledge.  He also explains that digital visualization is interactive and allows scholars to manipulate the visual and its data.

While the field of digital visualization is new, the use of visual tools in the humanities is not. Historians have used image galleries, museums and collections, film and television, reenactments, maps, and graphs to further their research and teach others.  Jessop explains that visualization, including the new field of digital visualization, has been used to portray many types of data, including spatial dimensions, quantitative data, text, time, and 3D visualization.  Jessop provides a plethora of examples where scholars have used digital visualization tools to portray these data types.  The Valley of the Shadow and Salem Witch Trials are visualization projects that showcase time, space, quantitative data, and qualitative data.  The British Library’s Turning the Pages displays text in its original form.  In addition, the Theatre of Pompey project is a neat 3D visualization. There are other examples I found of digital visualization.  Flickr can be considered a digital visualization tool where institutions, such as the Smithsonian, display a collection of images that tell a story. Amateurs and history buffs also dabble in digital visualization.  Maps of War is a great example.

Jessop finishes with a discussion on how humanists can set guidelines to ensure the value of digital visualization as a scholarly methodology.  He uses the London Charter, which lays out basic principles for the use of 3D visualization in scholarly research, as a jumping off point for objectives for the broader field of digital visualization.  The principles he highlights are aims and methods, sources, transparency requirements, and documentation.  Scholars should address why a certain method of digital visualization was used and which sources were considered.  There should be an explanation of the creator’s aims and use of methods so readers can discern for themselves if this creator’s approach was the best approach.  Finally, there should be documentation of the process of creating the visual.  Since digital visualization, according to Jessop, “[satisfies] the roles of the discovery, exchange, interpretation, and presentation of knowledge,” it is a scholarly methodology and as such should have rigorous scholarly guidelines.[2]

Is a picture worth a thousand words? Will digital visualization ever reach a place of equality to that of the written word in historical practice? Does digital visualization achieve the same outcomes as the written word?  A visual is a great teaching tool for people not immersed in the field of history, but can digital visualizations, in comparison to full explanations through written work, further learning for academics?


[1] Martyn Jessop, “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23, no. 3 (2008): 283.

[2] Ibid., 289.

One Reply to “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity”

  1. I really like the questions you bring up at the end of the post. Along with how new technologies have affected every way we live our lives I believe we’re starting to see a shift in how we learn.

    Over the past couple of years the ability to not only record video/visuals but also share video has become extremely easy & inexpensive. From amateur ‘How-Tos’ on youtube to more sophisticated platforms like the Khan Academy & are become real game changers in how we learn. With that said I believe this evolution will happen at a gradual pace. One big hurdle coming up soon is physical books becoming instinct in classrooms. I’m not sure yet if I believe yet that digital visualization will reach a place of equality to written word but I think it has a great chance.

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