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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Old Stuff, New Media

What should paper archives look like once they are put online?

Screenshot of Hiram Powers Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Correspondence from Samuel Longfellow to Hiram Powers. Hiram Powers Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Hiram Powers and William Cullen Bryant, ca. 1865. Hiram Powers papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. William Cullen Bryant (seated) and sculptor Hiram Powers, ca. 1865. Hiram Powers Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

You have seen photograph albums, file folders stuffed with paper, ancient newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, sketchbooks, notes and receipts. You know what these things look like; they are common artifacts of everyday life.

Therefore, even if you have never set foot in an archives before, it is a safe bet that the materials housed in most repositories would look familiar to you: lots of letters, paperwork, photos and so on. If you visited the Archives of American Art and were handed a box from the papers of sculptor Hiram Powers, you could probably make sense of what you were seeing, even if you knew nothing about the man, and notwithstanding the fact that he was born more than two centuries ago. The names and dates in the archivist’s description of the contents would help you, of course, but the fragility and yellowed hue of the papers and photos would also offer you strong and recognizable clues that this was a personal archive, amassed many years ago.

But what would happen if you were to stumble across the Hiram Powers papers online? Coming from a search engine instead of walking deliberately through a research center’s front door, do you have the experience and context to make sense of what you are looking at? Do the web pages that frame Powers’ digitized papers inform you, or confuse you?

The Archives of American Art recently digitized the Hiram Powers papers and posted them as our 100th digitized collection online. Part of my job at the Archives includes trying to make sure that the online research experience meets our visitors’ needs and expectations. Archival research is a complex process even in the best of circumstances, so trying to make sure than our online offerings are easy to use is frequently a challenge. We continually look at web traffic statistics, review online surveys, and—most importantly—conduct ongoing usability tests in order to try and understand how real people perceive and make use of our resources online. Testing, tweaking and redesigning our website with the goal of making it easier to use is a never-ending process. Technology evolves quickly, and so do people’s expectations.

But even with all of our research and testing, I still could not say for sure whether you would be satisfied with your experience of using the Hiram Powers papers online. Much depends on who you are, and the education, age, experience and expectations that you bring to the table.

But there is one thing I can say one thing for certain. Website designs that are:

  1. simple,
  2. demonstrate clear hierarchy, and
  3. beautiful

will provide a more satisfying research experience every single time. Web designers in archives (like everywhere else) need to keep on striving towards solutions which achieve all three.

Sara Snyder
Webmaster, Archives of American Art

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