Displaying Digital Projects: When You’re Happy, Nobody Else is Happy

As the field of digital humanities grows, so do the number of users, and with that, its critics. This is especially true with the display, function, and design of web pages which show our data, findings, and archival materials. I have found all too often we are quick to judge others’ projects for what they don’t do, rather than accompany these critiques with appreciation for what they accomplish (I myself am also guilty of this). Need an example?

This is something for us to look out for in the digestion of digital food for thought but also is a concern for those of us in the process of making digital projects. We are constantly going to be critiqued. The hard work we do will often go underappreciated. It doesn’t matter that it took half an hour or more to get the website header to look just right… if our thumbnails are a titsch too small, someone will undoubtedly only focus on that. We also do this to each other, let’s get real. For example, the Digital Scriptorium webiste (a repository for digitized medieval documents) is not browsable – you must have a good idea of what you’re trying to find before you can use the search function and actually see the digitized items. The Fashion and Race Database project, however, has a resources page filled with books that isn’t searchable, so browsing is the only option for finding something in your interests. These two sites are the far ends of the Goldy Locks spectrum, with no sense of “just right” until you see the challenge in the first place. It is impossible for us, when we are designing our websites, to be cognizant of every issue such as this browsing conundrum which may arise for users. I found myself complaining about this and realizing that I was complaining about something the web editor probably wasn’t even aiming to address.

While it is easy to point out the issues in interface, I would also like to take a moment to appreciate the sheer amount of work that has gone into these pages. In an age where websites are ubiquitous and instantly expected to serve our every need, we have to keep ourselves from just judging the sites and projects for what we want from them.

All this is also not to say that critique is bad. In fact, as digital humanists we should constantly be seeking feedback on our sites to aboid as much user frustration as possible (as users are typically easily frustrated). Common frustrations include searchability, navigation ease, and ease of access. In regard to these issues, we can aim to create what Mitchell Whitelaw calls “generous interfaces.” On the matter, he says:

As an interface, search fails to match the ample abundance of our digital collections and the generous ethos of the institutions that hold them. A more generous interface would do more to represent the scale and richness of its collection. It would open the doors, tear down the drab lobby; instead of demanding a query it would offer multiple ways in, and support exploration as well as the focused enquiry where search excels. In revealing the complexity of digital collections, a generous interface would also enrich interpretation by revealing relationships and structures within a collection.

Whitelaw. Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1 (2015). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/1/000205/000205.html

Overall, the scene can seem downright grim from a website and project designer’s perspective. Why put in all the work to make the best generous interface we can for such little reward? Answer: do the work for something that you value, something that matters to you, It is increasingly apparent that digital prjects are often side projects and take a lot of loving labor and time away from a scholar’s other obligations. This increases the necessity to do digital projects we are passionate about.

One example of passionate digital scholarship is that presented in Tim Sherratt’s “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Sherratt’s work on re-representing the faces of Australia has clearly touched him deeply, as is evident in his writing:

It’s all about the stuff.
It’s all about the respect and responsibility we both have for our collections.
It’s all about the respect and responsibility we both have for people like this.

Another site where the mission statement is clearly a driving force in its development is “People of Color in European Art History.” This blog, hosted on Tumblr, has in its mission statement:

The focus of this blog is to showcase works of art from European history that feature People of Color. All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia. Sometimes it’s just about really looking at artworks you’ve seen many times before, with a fresh perspective.

These sites and projects, while works in progress, are good examples for the rest of us working in digital projects. Even if our links break and our site is heavily criticized, we can avoid extreme distress and burnout by knowing that our work matters, that we’re doing our best to make a generous interface.