Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A New Visual Communication Concern for Librarianship: Messages Articulated through Reference Web Photographs

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A New Visual Communication Concern for Librarianship: Messages Articulated through Reference Web Photographs

Article excerpt

This study examines library Web site photographs depicting reference professional-user interactions. The researchers retrieved 150 digital photographs from public, academic, and special library Web sites and analyzed them using visual content analysis and visual social semiotic theory to examine their power, knowledge, activity, social distance, and professional warmth messages. Chi-square analysis is used to determine whether any significant relationships exist between library types and visual messages (power, knowledge, activity, social distance, and professional warmth). Contingency tables are also used to examine the patterns of difference across library types. Findings suggest that the dominant visual message articulated across Web photographs is professional power, knowledge equality, activity equality, far personal distance, and medium levels of warmth. Analysis indicates significant relationships between power, knowledge, activity and library type, and contingency tables illuminated unique messages articulated by library type.

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Historically, librarianship has articulated two primary visual communication concerns: 1) the visual communication dynamics of professional-user interactions during live encounters, and 2) the negative librarian stereotype and its impact on communication. The increasing importance of the computer screen in public communication and the proliferation of photographic production and circulation technologies (for example, digital cameras, scanners, and Web site-authoring software) are two very distinct yet related changes in the visual communication landscape of librarianship that have converged to create the new visual communication concern of communicating to users (and potential users) through Web photographs. First, the dominant mode of public communication is moving away from the printed page towards the medium of the computer screen. (1) This shift is occurring due to social, economic, and technological changes in the landscape of communication. (2) Thus, a communication revolution is taking place in which the public is receiving much of its information about and from organizations and institutions via the computer screen. Librarianship is no exception: librarians are now communicating in the "Age of the Screen" and the computer screen is now a primary site of representation and communication for many arenas of librarianship. (3)

As Kress notes, these statements are not meant to declare the end of writing, but to acknowledge the new power of the image. The medium of the screen makes the construction and circulation of images easy. Images on the screen are now ubiquitous, and the status of images--digital photographs, cartoons, and so on--is elevated to a mode of communication equal to yet distinct from text. (4)

The new visual communication concern of communicating to users and potential users through Web photographs is also a function of the proliferation of photographic production and circulation technologies in librarianship. In fact, practically every library has a Web site and Web design has become the latest addition to the duties of many librarians. (5) Librarians are using technologies such as digital cameras, scanners, and Web site-authoring software to construct visual messages and to place them in circulation. The new power of librarians to construct visual representations of themselves and their users has transformed them into imagemakers. (6)

As imagemakers, librarians construct visual representations (Web photographs) of themselves, users, relationships, and interactions, and they are placing those Web photographs (visual representations), which are inscribed with visual messages in circulation. The visual messages articulated through Web photographs are presently unanalyzed, in part, because the field seems to possess a taken-for-granted assumption of the camera's impartial vision. Moreover, the lack of library literature on the active construction of Web photographs suggests that it is currently considered a technological and mechanical process as opposed to a process of mediated and cultural construction. …

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