Fields of Vision: Toward a New Theory of Visual Literacy for Digitized Archival Photographs

  • Paul Conway
  • Ricardo L. Punzalan


For well over a decade, archivists and archival scholars have examined the theoretical and practical implications of digitizing visual records. Significant components of this inquiry include the relevance of visual literacy research to archival practice as well as the implications of the apparent loss of intrinsic value, meaning, and context through the processes of digital representation. What is missing most prominently from essentially archivist- and process-centric perspectives is a deep understanding of the user experience of finding meaning in visual archives. This article presents a new multi-faceted theory of visual meaning, derived from in-depth case studies of highly experienced users of digitized photographic archives. The paper contextualizes a “Fields of Vision” theory in the literature on literacy and material loss, demonstrating that product-based use encompasses modes of discovering, storytelling, and landscaping that are fundamentally archival in their construction. The digitization of archival photographs also produces distinctive variation in the value that experienced users place on the material properties of original source photographs. The paper concludes with the implications of the “Fields of Vision” theory for future user-based research.


Depuis plus d’une décennie, les archivistes et les chercheurs en archivistique ont étudié les conséquences théoriques et pratiques de la numérisation des documents d’archives visuels. On s’est ainsi penché sur la pertinence de la recherche en alphabétisation visuelle (« visual literacy ») dans la pratique de l’archivistique, ainsi que sur les conséquences d’une perte apparente de la valeur intrinsèque, du sens et du contexte découlant du processus de représentation numérique. Ce qui manque le plus dans les perspectives centrées sur l’archiviste et sur le processus est une connaissance profonde de l’expérience de l’usager qui trouve un sens dans les archives visuelles. Cet article présente une nouvelle théorie à multiples facettes sur le sens du visuel, découlant d’études de cas approfondies d’usagers très expérimentés des archives photographiques numérisées. Ce texte contextualise la théorie Champs de vision (« Fields of Vision ») dans la littérature sur l’alphabétisation et la perte matérielle, démontrant que l’usage basé sur le produit englobe les modes de découverte [discovering], de création de narrations [storytelling] et de création de paysages [landscaping] qui sont foncièrement archivistiques dans leur fondement. La numérisation des photographies d’archives créé aussi des variations dans la valeur qu’attribuent les usagers expérimentés aux propriétés matérielles des photographies originales. Ce texte conclue en offrant des conséquences de la théorie Champs de vision sur la recherche future centrée sur les usagers.

Author Biographies

Paul Conway

Paul Conway is an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, where he also obtained a PhD. He has extensive research, teaching, and administrative experience in both the archives and preservation fields, and has made major contributions over the past thirty years to the literature on archival users and use, preservation management, and digital imaging technologies. He has held positions at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (1977–1987; 1989–1992), the Society of American Archivists (1988–1989), Yale University (1992–2001), and Duke University (2001–2006). In 2005, he received the Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award of the American Library Association for his contributions to the preservation field. He is a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists.

Ricardo L. Punzalan

Ricardo Punzalan is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information, University of Michigan. He is also pursuing certificates in the Science, Technology, and Society and Museum Studies programs. His current research explores issues of materiality of digitized archival images. He also looks at how archival collections and archival processes contribute to collective memory, heritage, and community identity. Before coming to the University of Michigan, he was an assistant professor of Archives and Library Science, School of Library and Information Studies, University of the Philippines. He holds an MLIS in Archives and Museum Studies, University of the Philippines.

How to Cite
Conway, Paul, and Ricardo L. Punzalan. 2011. “Fields of Vision: Toward a New Theory of Visual Literacy for Digitized Archival Photographs”. Archivaria 71 (May), 63-97.