Sensemaking through knowledge mapping

Knowledge maps fascinate me.  I started out repelled by certain visual representations of information in my first career (in international development); I just detested a particular working paper of one important organization which had as its cover design a project management flow chart.  Yet I live by organization charts, and I can’t keep away from the Literature-Map, which is a dynamic vjsual representation of how likely people associated with the site are to like sets of authors.

Now I have been asked to teach concept mapping to students in one of our doctoral programs.  I often wonder why more librarians aren’t involved in teaching information/knowledge mapping techniques, which I find to be very useful tools in the sensemaking process.  In this post, I’d like to begin to dissect the broad field of knowledge mapping, exploring several types of mapping tools and their applications.

There are many different ways to slice and dice information or knowledge mapping tools, and a lot of different names for them (see for example WikiIT for other terms and ways to think about types of knowledge maps).  “Mind mapping” is a term most people in education are familiar with, in either the strict (and trademarked) sense defined by Tony Buzan ( and Tony Buzan, Inventor of Mind Mapping) or the more common usage by a multiplicity of software companies in the project management market.  Concept mapping and argument mapping/issue mapping/dialogue mapping are tools for special purposes, much less well know outside their niches.  I prefer the overall term knowledge mapping to information mapping.  Others prefer knowledge cartography (Okada, Buckingham Shum, and Sherbourne, 2008), a term which incorporates knowledge rather than information and avoids the already claimed KM acronym.

What knowledge mapping tools share is use of the mapping metaphor to bring relationships into prominence.  Few words are used, and therefore they must be well chosen.  Relationships may be indicated by labels (concept maps), or just by proximity or connecting lines.  In some maps, pictures or symbols add meaning.

I like the way David Hyerle (2009) categorizes mapping (or visual) tools into those oriented toward facilitating creativity, those meant for analysis, and those meant for synthesis.  To these I add a category of tools for organizing large collections of resources.  It’s possible to break these categories down further, but I think these provide enough for some orientation to their value.

In this post, I want to give an overview of each kind of tool; in later posts, I will discuss each in more detail.

Mapping tools for creativity are often called mind mappers.  While there are now many software tools, the activity can easily and sometimes more productively be done manually.  A large whiteboard, a wall of whiteboard paint, flip chart paper taped up on a wall, or plenty of sticky notes can all provide great media, and some people find them more conducive to the thinking process than software.

Source: My Thoughts Mind Map

How to Mind Map

This map shows use of color, images and interconnections, all typical features of mind maps.  (“How to Mind Map – MyThoughts for Mac” from MyThoughtsMindMaps’ Photostream, used under a Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial – NoDerivs 2.0 license

Analytic maps often resemble visual versions of outlines.  They can be applied to research projects, or indeed any kind of project, breaking down the project or process into steps to be taken. I teach the library research process using a double-sided map, wherein the left side is the library research process and the right side the outline of the paper:

Research plan map

Research plan map


Maps for synthesis include a number of subcategories such as concept mapping and mapping of complex, iterative dialogues.  The latter can be used in decision making processes where stakeholders have different values as well as varying points of view, and where it isn’t possible to define a problem in a simple fashion, without multiple attempts at understanding the nature of the problem itself.  Concept mapping is similar in that, in the process of understanding a complex field, one makes multiple attempts to state the problem as well as to identify the proper constituent parts and their relationships, which may have complex interrelationships rather than simple hierarchical correspondences.

In this concept map I made to explain concept maps to students, note that each relationship is labeled.  This map shows fairly simple relationships, but entities in concept maps can have multiple parents and circular relationships:

Concept map

(You can see a better version of this here).

Maps for organizing large collections Most librarians have personal sets of resources.  Some of us are satisfied by keeping them in notebook form; others, more visually oriented (like me), like the map style but have collections that are too large for static maps.  For these collections, dynamic, web-type software can be extremely useful.  Like concept mapping software, this allows you to make connections every which way (the technical term).  On a static map, you’d go farther and farther out on a branch, or scroll farther down a page, losing the view of the rest of your map; in a dynamic map (like the literature map linked in the first paragraph), the map re-centers at every click, giving you a new view oriented around your current focus.

It’s hard to imagine how these work without seeing them in action, but here are two screen shots from one of my all-purpose webs, from a section on mapping tools:


Mind mapping

The first image is centered around the term “mind mapping;” in the second, I have clicked on its child, “programs,” giving a related but different view:


As Tom Anders observed on a comment on an earlier post of mine, it’s hard to find one mapping tool that could serve all purposes equally well, and that’s frustrating.  But this is how I divide up the world of knowledge mapping:

Tools for

  • Creativity
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Organizing large collections


Hyerle, D. (2009). Visual tools for transforming information into knowledge. Thousand Oaks, CA : Corwin Press.

Okada, Alexandra, Buckingham Shum, Simon, and Sherbourne, Tony. (Eds.). (2008). Knowledge cartography : software tools and mapping techniques. London, England: Springer.




















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































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