Visualization and Virtual Spaces: Scholarly Communication Beyond Text

Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting information about each of the teams who will be participating in the Institute this November. Here’s the first one, Visualization and Virtual Spaces: Scholarly Communication Beyond Text, sent in by the team’s convener, Paul Fyfe.


This working group aims to push discussions of scholarly communications beyond the horizon of text-based writing and publication to which they have largely been confined. In particular, it seeks to explore how emerging communicative possibilities of images, data visualization, and virtual spaces can engage broader publics in digital research. It also argues that such multimodal encounters are increasingly important as we continue to argue for the relevance and reach of humanities scholarship. Our working group brings together interdisciplinary researchers from active digital humanities projects, librarians with a focus on visualization technologies, representatives from centers of immersive virtual reality and geospatial scholarship, new media scholars, and digital art historians who are developing the next generation of digital engagement with humanities scholarship and cultural heritage collections. Our group comprises new partnerships in the Triangle and beyond with the varied disciplinary and technical expertise necessary to move this conversation forward.

Visualization lab

The needs to engage scholarly communication beyond text come from a variety of quarters. In a recent keynote surveying the promises of digital humanities scholarship, the historian Tim Hitchcock urges the field to move beyond the “vanilla sex” of text-based concerns and tools to multimodal research. Only then, Hitchcock claims, do we really begin asking new questions. Johanna Drucker has noted that, amid the enthusiasm to visualize data in digital humanities projects, surprisingly little critical attention has been given their graphical and design practices, mostly borrowed from social science techniques. These scholars do not simply suggest that visualization must play a greater role in digital humanities discourse: they underscore the urgent need for scholars and knowledge designers to imagine those visual encounters with greater reach and critical ingenuity. On the terrain of scholarly communications, efforts have largely focused on opening access to research outputs, facilitating multi-platform communications, and aiding scholars’ and publishers’ partnerships with libraries. In continuing partnership with digital humanities and moving beyond the conventional forms of text and data-based research, scholarly communications has significant opportunities to compass visual and virtual domains as these practices expand.

Researchers and staff in universities, museums, and cultural outreach groups have already done much to demonstrate the possibilities of the visual and virtual for their missions. Examples have come from certain quarters within digital humanities, including purpose-built platforms like Omeka and its Neatline plugin for representing collections of diverse objects in time and space; significant attention to data visualization in quantitative, textual, and network analysis; research on digital images at scale and collections of image data; uses of infographics in humanities advocacy (as by 4Humanities); and virtual reconstructions of historical spaces, including archaeological sites from Pompeii to St. Paul’s Cathedral to colonial Williamsburg. Educational games have successfully involved students and players in varied kinds of immersive spaces for several decades; games and their rendering engines offer some exciting opportunities in which to engage students and broader publics. With media-rich websites, audio guides, purpose-built augmented reality mobile apps, and dedicated spaces in web-based simulation platforms such as Second Life and OpenSim, libraries, museums, and universities have aggressively sought out new spaces in which to encounter “the crowd” online. We believe that these trends can and should coalesce into broader scholarly commitments to professional, pedagogical, and public outreach through such modalities beyond text.

Diseases across the top five languages of the MEDLINE DatabaseOur working group draws participants from many of the aforementioned domains, seeking to generate common conversations and shared strategies from diverse but mutually interested groups. What are the emerging visual techniques and virtual spaces with which we can reach out to scholars, students, and citizens? What approaches and platforms are the most promising for scholarly communication so enhanced? And what are the challenges for developing and sustaining this work? The SCI affords a unique opportunity for our group to explore these questions collaboratively and formulate recommendations for moving scholarly communication and public engagement into new terrain. Our group will identify and answer key questions about ongoing and emerging work in the field, targeting outcomes specific to projects participating in the SCI and sharing our findings widely during the conference and after.

Our work plan for the SCI comprises three streams. We begin with a shared exploration of issues in scholarly communication pertaining to the visual, virtual, and spatial, collecting from the diverse expertise of the group a sense of the field and what opportunities seem most promising to pursue. This “state of the field” will feature in our post-SCI report and will also set the group’s agenda in the sessions to come. The second stream looks again to group members to identify and share notable existing and emerging projects in visual, virtual, and spatial scholarship. Participants engaged in projects of their own will contextualize and share their work, including historical and spatial reconstruction, immersive virtual spaces, and large-scale data visualization. This stream also seeks to involve the group and potentially other SCI participants with hands-on experiences with representative technologies. We will identify and discuss the supporting technologies, institutional spaces, and collaborations which make such work possible, and assess what might be required to enhance their presence within scholarly communication. The third stream concerns outcomes in related contexts of partnerships, projects, and pedagogy. Based upon our SCI experiences and assessments, the group will propose a set of specific plans including potential partnerships coming out of the SCI, shared statements from the working group to publicize more broadly, and recommendations for teaching colleagues, students, and the public about issues, platforms, and opportunities in scholarly communication beyond text.

Our topic compasses an array of overlapping contexts in which these conversations are taking shape. SCI offers our working group opportunities for networking these conversations and encouraging creative speculation about their connected futures. We have prioritized creativity by drawing participants from diverse intellectual domains and professional contexts, all of whom are eager to share not only with each other, but with the collective work of the institute as a whole.



Paul Fyfe (convener)

Paul Fyfe is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Coordinator in the English Department and program faculty in the Communications, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program (CRDM) at North Carolina State University. His research focuses on British Victorian literature in contexts of book and media history, and he is now working with an interdisciplinary team at NC State to virtually reconstruct a garden pavilion built for Queen Victoria as an experimental site for nineteenth-century British art.

Victoria Szabo

Victoria Szabo is an Assistant Research Professor, Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies, Duke University and the Program Director for Information Science + Information Studies (ISIS), an interdisciplinary Certificate Program and research center. She is also a core collaborator for the Wired! Lab for Visualizing the Past and is teaching in the new MA in Historical and Cultural Visualization. Her academic work focuses on digital humanities, in theory and practice, with an emphasis on the affordances of spatial media applications — including digital maps, virtual worlds, augmented reality, and games — for scholarly research and communication.

Markus Wust
Digital Collections and Preservation Librarian, NCSU Librries

David Zielinski
Research and development engineer for the Duke immersive Virtual Environment

Angela Zoss

Angela Zoss began work as Duke University’s first Data Visualization Coordinator in the summer of 2012. While helping to develop this new position at Duke, she has created new library workshops on visualization; hosted a student data visualization contest; consulted with students, researchers, and faculty members on research projects; and helped to introduce visualization concepts and tools into several undergraduate and graduate courses.  She holds a Master of Science in Communication from Cornell University and is pursuing a doctorate in Information Science from Indiana University, where her research has focused on scientometrics, network analysis, and literacy issues surrounding information visualization.

Anna Bentkowska-Kafel

Paradata and Transparency in Virtual Heritage book coverAnna Bentkowska-Kafel, PhD, is an independent scholar and part-time lecturer in Digital Art History in the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, UK. She has been a longstanding committee member and editor for Computers and the History of Art ( Her research, teaching and publications have been mainly on Early Modern visual culture in Western Europe, and the use of advanced ICT methods in art studies. She has published on digital iconography and digital iconology, the evidential value of the digital image and the impact of interactive computer graphics on documentation, representation and interpretation of art and architecture, and is also exploring the potential of machine haptics for art studies and virtual museology.

Communicating our Scholarship

Many of us have benefitted from SCI events and outcomes in the past, whether from watching real-time tweetstreams, reading the thoughtful commentary which precipitated in participant blogs or conference presentations, or digesting the official summaries and reports from previous events. Such multi-layered reporting seems entirely consistent with what the SCI aims to do, in opening and circulating its discussions to as many interested persons as possible. Our group will likewise undertake to communicate its conversations and findings through a blended approach to engage our peers at SCI and the crowd beyond. At the outset of the SCI, our group will divide roles including live tweeting, note taking, and periodic event blogging. These roles will rotate throughout the event. We imagine our notes to follow a THATCamp model: taken collaboratively on a platform open to all participants in the SCI and interested observers on the web. We hope they will help facilitate cross-over conversations with other SCI groups and aggregate the materials, conversations, and recommendations for refinement after the SCI.

Our group envisions post-SCI outcomes in three categories: collective, collaborative, and individual. Our collective output will be recommendations for an online toolkit to help facilitate research in visual and virtual scholarly communication. The group will assess the need, opportunities, and sustainability model for creating a web-based resource such as the Learning Space Toolkit ( developed by NC State Libraries, or a “sharing house” such as created during the Spatial Humanities Institute ( at UVa’s Scholars’ Lab. Our group would not create the finished site during SCI, but recommend a plan for its further development, supplying polished versions of our group’s “state of the field,” analyses, and recommendations, and potentially leveraging the visual, spatial, or virtual platforms that we’ve identified as a user experience model for the site. Secondly, we anticipate outcomes from shared interests at SCI germinating into collaborative projects. This is not a requirement of participation in our group, but we expect that yet-unformed partnerships will be facilitated between its members and others at their institutions. In these cases, the SCI’s lessons will significantly inform the development and reporting of collaborative work, whether in terms of scholarly research or shared training environments. Thirdly, individual participants will communicate lessons from SCI in their own ongoing work as scholars, instructors, and citizens across the spectrum of scholarly communication, using the varied, multimodal channels through which we communicate our work.

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