Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > Historians' Experiences Using Digitized Archival Photographs as Evidence

Widespread digitization has presented scholars with unprecedented access to archival sources. In particular, the availability of archival photographs through online collections has been championed as an opportunity to fill in underrepresented histories absent from archival collections. Yet the degree to which scholars are using digital visual sources, and how they are using them, is relatively unexplored in the literature. In part, this can be attributed to the difficulties of modeling visual information use; no empirical models currently link scholarly interpretive practices to how scholars actually use visual materials. This dissertation sought to address these gaps in the literature by examining the experiences of one group – self-identified historians using digitized archival photographs as evidence in their scholarly activities. This study uses an embedded case study approach to explore how and why historians use images in the construction of their arguments. Fifteen participants were recruited during the spring and summer of 2015. I conducted semi-structured interviews with each participant, eliciting descriptions about their image practices and specific experiences related to image use. I used thematic analysis and thematic synthesis to reveal salient aspects of historians’ experiences as they interpret and decide to use (or not use) materials. To strengthen and verify the analysis, I used triangulation strategies at different stages in the study. The results of this exploratory research can be used to inform designs for archival description and access, and to provide guidance for historical image use. In particular, my findings disclose the various factors that matter to historians in their experiences interacting with archival photographs in digital environments. Examples of image use are largely absent from the historical literature; the case studies presented in this research help to illustrate the functional ways historians currently use digitized photographs in both research and instructional capacities. Each case also sheds light on the processes and practices historians employ as they construct evidence from photographs and supplementary materials. This research also makes important theoretical contributions to the LIS literature. While there has been unquestionable growth in access to digital sources, few empirical studies have examined scholarly interactions with digitized archival materials. Toward that end, this study introduces a conceptual framework for exploring how and why historians use digitized photographs. It presents a holistic methodology that focuses attention on information experiences as spaces for meaning-making in digital environments. Attending to my participants' experiences using photographs as historical evidence helped to reveal, in the words of Gregory Bateson, “the difference that makes a difference.”