Rethinking historical university records
: provenance in visualization and digital humanities research

  • Tomas Vancisin

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


The world’s oldest universities, including St Andrews (my case study), have started digitizing their historical student and staff records for their (in)valuable information about the ‘education-worthy’, and the institutions themselves. Current digitization comes in various forms, from scanning handwritten records and transcribing them, to applying handwritten text recognition (HTR). While text search interfaces facilitate quicker access to these collections – and protect fragile documents – they only provide a record-by-record view. By contrast, this thesis argues for representing historical university records through visualization which allows multi-perspective views on records and foregrounds their curation(s) over time by defining and showcasing the concept of Provenance-Driven Visualization (PDV). Provenance as a key parameter in the keeping of such collections has been overlooked by researchers in DH and VIS, despite emphasizing attribution as part of research ethics (trustworthiness, transparency, etc.). Even where provenance is disclosed, it is (a) partial, (b) presented through text at collection-level, or through homogenous diagrams (hiding more complex processes), and (c) typically separated from the visualization itself (in an ‘about’ page or as diagrams). By directly addressing provenance through PDV as central to the advancement of digital curation of historical university records, this thesis develops VIS and DH research by demonstrating how visualization is itself a means for knowledge discovery as well as knowledge recovery. Main chapters develop my theoretical, ethical, and applied approach to provenance visualization (PDV) using the Biographical Records of St Andrews University 1579-1897 as an indicative case to highlight (1) added transparency (to the accuracy, representation, and ‘facts’ of such collections), (2) greater inclusion and diversity of such research, when the curatorial processes and decisions behind them are visualized (to enlarge research ethics and fuel interdisciplinary research), and (3) added critical understanding of such historical collections. Conclusions present all three as key parameters for theoretical and applied VIS and DH research.
Date of Award12 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorUta Hinrichs (Supervisor) & Mary Margaret Orr (Supervisor)


  • Digital humanities
  • Information visualization
  • Provenance visualization
  • Digital heritage
  • History of education

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  • Full text embargoed until
  • 12 February 2026

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