Of Patterns and Patches: Visualization Methodologies for a Digital History of Knowledge

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Peter Burke opened his seminal What is the history of knowledge with the statement: “if the history of knowledge did not already exist, it would be necessary to invent it, especially to place the ‘digital revolution’ into perspective”. Apart from very brief references to “future”, “big” and “deep” historians of knowledge, potentially interested in the cognitive sciences (p. 124), Burke does not problematize what the study of history of knowledge requires in the digital era. Nevertheless, both “big” and “deep” histories (big data, deep maps/networks) are studied with digital methods. This paper explores the questions: 1) what is digital history of knowledge, and 2) what kind of analytical visualization methods
and tools do we need to represent result of research in the history of knowledge. Anthony Grafton stated as early as 2007, that the digitization of written records (we include here visual records as well) will result in a “long series of new information ecologies, all of them challenging, in which readers, writers
and producers of text (and image) have learned to survive”. These ecologies live in “a patchwork of interfaces and databases.”I’ll argue that a combination of pattern recognition enriched with layered “patches” of information for contextualization might bridge scientific and hermeneutic modes of investigation and be beneficial in the development of a digital history of knowledge.

Peter Burke, What is the History of Knowledge Cambridge: Polity Press (2016) p. 1. Anthony Grafton ‘Future Reading. Digitization and its discontents’ The New Yorker, November 5 2007. Available online at:
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 03 Sept 2020


  • digital history of knowledge
  • history of knowledge
  • visualization


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