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Toward a Unified Theory of Visual Knowledge in Library, Archives and Information Studies: A Test of the KBI Model Using Documentary Photographs


This dissertation makes use of three commonly used qualitative methods, visual ethnography, rephotography and a type of photo-elicitation, to examine an innovative theory of visual knowledge called Know, Believe, and Imagine. KBI is first and foremost an innovative model of visual perception. The discovery of KBI led to an award-winning art practice. This study moves the theoretical foundations of KBI from the studio to a qualitative research setting to determine if KBI can be used for reliable and valid knowledge production.

The invention of the printing press and the resulting mass production of literature in the fifteenth century presaged an immediate institutional commitment to verbal literacy, as embodied in the field of Library and Information Studies (LIS). However, despite the invention of technologies that have enabled the mass production of both still and moving images, a parallel institutional commitment to visual literacy in the social sciences has not transpired. The twenty-first century is awash in visual imagery due in no small measure to the computer, the Internet, and graphical user interfaces and remediation associated with computerization.

Visual literacy refers to a group of vision competencies, integrated with other sensory modes, which are used to make sense of visual experience. Epistemological discourse regarding knowledge claims from visual records has tended to mimic the reductive paradigms applied to written scientific discourse, even though it has long been accepted that visual information is cognitively processed differently than verbal information.

The examination of documentary photographs described in this dissertation examines a theory of seeing that emerged from art practice, and form the foundation for a discursive system that accounts for the role that existing knowledge, heuristics, and imagination performs in visual literacy. This study demonstrates that a knowledge-based approach, associated with research in cognitive psychology, is better suited for advancing visual literacy and visual epistemologies.

Documentary photographs were examined in two phases using qualitative methods that provided evidence of the robustness of the theoretical model for meaningful social scientific discourse. The specific type of documentary photographs used for this research was black-and-white postcards created in the first half of the twentieth century. While sufficient time has elapsed to provide significant socio-cultural movement, not so much time has elapsed to render the artifactual material obsolete, allowing for the construction of rich socio-cultural narratives grounded in the trace evidence of still images. A pragmatic benefit of this research might include an increased valuation and access to visual archives, and improved methods for making sense of visual experience.

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