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Visualizing the Architectural Research Process: A Collaborative Library Instruction Workshop

July 7, 2017
Lucy Campbell and Barbara Opar, column editors  
Column by Stephanie Beene, Fine Arts Librarian for Art, Architecture and Planning, University of New Mexico  


I arrived at the University of New Mexico in January 2016 as the Fine Arts Librarian for Art, Architecture & Planning. Within a few months, I was asked to teach a collaborative Research Methods Workshop for Architecture graduate students with Associate Dean and Professor of Architecture, Mark Childs. Throughout 2016-17, Professor Childs and I collaborated on the workshop and spent time assessing and developing it. Some of the experiments from those developments are presented here.

In the workshop, graduate students conduct field and/or archival research; literature reviews; create and compare maps and GIS data; conduct database and journal reviews; and use all four libraries on campus, including the Fine Arts and Design Library. Students create their own path to authority by interrogating the authority of other works and spaces. They assert their expertise as one among experts, by examining artifacts, data, and models, and placing them in conversation with one another.  Professor Childs and I challenge students to create visualizations, or concept maps, of the research resources they encounter, leading to a variety of curatorial, creative, and professional outputs.

We spend significant time framing the research process through Scholarship as Conversation.1 One of the ways we do this is by placing authorities and works in conversation with each other in a nonlinear, creative way. Students create a concept map2 or visualization of their research process, from literature encountered to end design products. By visualizing their research process as an investigation of scholarship, topics become conversations occurring across time, space, and media. I have found that concept mapping lowers the frustration threshold when emphasizing the iterative nature of research. It allows students to understand how and why something enters “seminal” status. Conversely, students are able see when a scholar or architect is unique or isolated in scholarly or professional circles. Taking public housing as an example topic, students quickly see the need to narrow the subject down by geography, city, material, and/or era. Students with this topic can easily discern clusters of discussion points in a concept map, where certain cities or subtopics have been more heavily discussed than others. Scholars, arguments, funding models, designs, models and site analyses begin to emerge as ideas to pursue for their own projects. Meanwhile, keywords, subjects, authorities, and experts begin to recur throughout the visualization, becoming the connective tissue between disparate resources. Some students’ visualizations include imagery, data, or schematics, leading us on a visual quest for additional images based on those already found, using tools like Artstor, or browsing through monograph and periodical collections. Through the iterative nature of research, additional lines of inquiry expand as the visualizations grow organically, allowing for inspiration and comprehension of a topic. By visualizing arguments in terms of conversations that build or collapse, like monuments, students are able to see how scholars mirror the act of construction.  



  1. The Association of College & Research Libraries “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” lays out 6 Frames, or “Threshold Concepts.” One of these is Scholarship as Conversation. It states “Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.”  “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” Association of College & Research Libraries, last modified January 11, 2016, http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.
  2. Academic OneFile, a Gale Resource, http://blog.gale.com/topic-finder/, allows students to begin their research by visualizing their keywords and phrases through concept mapping, either via wheel or tile format.  The tool will narrow their topic by thesaurus and synonym, while also linking to a range of articles and resources. While students are encouraged to use Artstor and Avery Index for more subject-specific and in-depth research, this is a good starting point for them -- not only for broader topics like “public housing” but also to start them thinking about concept mapping and visualization and the ways in which scholars, articles, and ideas intersect with one another.
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