Print Project: Exploring User Interfaces Using the Wayback Machine

As someone who has done a lot of work in communications and marketing at historical organizations, I am very interested in how institutions present themselves to the world at large. One of the most accessible ways organizations can create a public presence is through the internet and their website.

A friend in my capstone class is using the Wayback Machine to do some really interesting research on how conspiracy theories spread via the internet. This has introduced me to how useful this tool could be to people in the humanities, and I assume that as we move further into the future and more things on the internet become “historical” (whatever that means), the Wayback Machine will become just as synonymous in the historian’s toolkit as searching in a physical database. That all being said, I want to use this fascinating tool to learn more about my own personal interests–historic organizations’ digital presence.

I want to know how these institutions’ webpages and digital content has changed over time, and compare their effectiveness against readings we’ve done about successful user interfaces, while also engaging with the historiography about various institutions and changes in museum technology (some of which I am already familiar with because of what I am researching for my own capstone project).

As the Smithsonian has an extensive institutional archive, as well as a lot written about it from a historiographical perspective, I will certainly include that in my organizations that I research. I also want to look at the White House Historical Association, as I currently intern there and part of my duties are putting up digital content, so I very familiar with its current website–and am interested in how it has changed over the years. Both of these institutions have internet presences starting in the late 90s, according to the Wayback Machine. I also want to look at one more, smaller institution, as I want to see the role funding plays in how an organization is represented digitally. I’m not sure yet which I will use, I am open to suggestions! Do smaller organizations with presumably less funding have a more stagnant, less user friendly website? I also want to look at how much content each site is offering. The internet is a way to expand an organizations reach, and make their content more accessible. I want to see how these various institutions have taken advantage of this since they first created their websites in the 90s.

This project will serve to shed light on how effectively historical organizations, big and small, are using the internet to promote themselves and their content. It is important to study how these various institutions present themselves to the public, and I would be interested to add their digital personas to that understanding.   

“User Experience.”

It’s not all that different from what we do as public historians. But how do we apply it to the virtual world?

In Communicating Design: Developing Website Documentation for Design and Planning, Dan Brown lays out his fundamentals of design and planning when it comes to building a successful (read: user friendly) website interface.

“User Experience.” It’s not all that unfamiliar of a concept to those of us who study public history. A visitor’s experience at a cultural heritage site and their subsequent feedback is an integral part of many public historians professional careers. We are often faced with various design challenges such as: text placement, interactivity, how to displays various kinds of artifacts, and designing tours which engage the visitor in hopes of getting positive feedback, ultimately getting us closer to our goals of disseminating historical information to the general public (this is obviously a generalization, but stick with me through the comparison). What we do as public historians is not so different than what Dan Brown does as a person who works in information architecture and user experience design. He, like us, also creates environments in hopes of successfully drawing people in and disseminating information to those who enter his environments. The difference being that instead of a physical environment, like that of a museum or other historical organization, he creates digital environments via websites.

It is clear in his book that this is what Brown does for a living. In many ways he takes a very meta approach–integrating his own visual techniques into his explanations. For example, in his chapter about creating concept models to communicate information, he uses a concept model to explain how create one.

While this approach is amusing, it is also highly effective. As someone unfamiliar with website design and how to approach communicating said design, the visuals of the visuals he describes help to picture how I would apply said strategies myself. These visuals (or artifacts, as Brown refers to them as): diagrams, personas, concept models, flowcharts, etc., are then packaged together to create a deliverable, which can then shared with the team, client, or outside consultants for input and discussion.

Another effective piece of Brown’s book are the definitions at the top of each chapter. These help define the important term each chapter discusses. These terms are not necessarily unfamiliar, for example, “Usability Plan”. This term is certainly not some kind of complex jargon. That being said, Brown’s definitions help to give the term context within the purpose of his book. The definition also provides a larger clarification of the term within the professional world. I myself have never really thought much about how to define the word “deliverable” despite the fact that I’ve been asked to create one in the workplace multiple times. This helps to put things into perspective, and also adds an additional visual aspect to things that would not necessarily be considered “visual” otherwise.

While Brown frames his process for creating artifacts and producing deliverables in order to communicate the design of a website, his steps to creating a successful web project are applicable to really any project–especially in a professional setting, but even within the context of designing a research project. This aspect gives the text a dynamacy that makes it incredibly useful (so much so I even followed Dan Brown on twitter after reading the book so I can keep getting tips and tricks from him). His organizational structure makes what can be the very messy and content rich process of project design and makes it visual, so that you can physically see the steps ahead. This, at least for me, was a very persuasive way of organization which I had not given much thought to beforehand. Moreover, when I have tried to create visual “artifacts” to assist me before, they have never turned out to be very effective. Brown’s text provides the outlines for making effective visual artifacts in order to create a coherent and useful deliverable.

I think this could be a very useful text for those of us in the humanities who are unfamiliar with the virtual world, but are trying to create an effect internet presence. In Sean’s discussion of History Wired and User Interfaces last week, he commented on the ineffectiveness of the website’s interface. I commented back my own qualms with various cultural heritage organizations’s ineffective UI’s. I think Brown’s book could be a great start for many of these organizations to get ahold of their ineffective interfaces. It makes sense that his of visuals to communicate project design result in effective, user friendly websites, as at their core websites are visual entities. I myself was just assigned a project at work to reorganize how we sort our items in our online retail store, in order to make it more logical and effective. Although this a much smaller scale project than what Brown often refers to, I plan to use the lessons I learned in Communicating Design to create an effective plan to complete this project. Get back to me in a few weeks, and I’ll let you know how well Brown’s organizational plan worked in the context of the reorganization of a historical association’s webstore.

In the meantime, check out a recent tweet from Brown about the redesign of Slack’s logo–which touches on some of the worst aspects of the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted” culture of the internet.

The Digital Humanities”Revolution”

The first chapter in Matthew Jockers’s book Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History is “Revolution.” Being born in the so called “digital age,” it’s hard to think of “humanities computing” as revolutionary, as I was educated in an atmosphere where such tools were always on the periphery of my studies (emphasis on the periphery, which is why I’m in this class). Jockers begins the chapter with a quote from Douglas Carl Engelbart: “The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.” An interesting choice, and if he was going for the shock factor he got me there. But one thing that worried me about Jocker’s grand introduction into this revolution is his lack of emphasis on the continuing importance of physical, written evidence which requires a close reading as being a viable tool of research. While he does eventually come to the conclusion that digital methods of research will still need to be coupled with more traditional methods, I fear his emphasis on macroanalysis will lead to laziness on account of asking a computer program or algorithm to do the bulk of the work in place of getting “down and dirty” in an actual archive (yes, I understand the book is in fact called “Macroanalysis” but bear with me). Perhaps I am just old fashioned?

I was also troubled by his statement that just about “everything” is available digitally. While it is true that more things are available in digital format now than they ever were before, and this this number will only continue to grow, I think by making this statement he ignores many of the small cultural heritage organizations who would love to digitize their collections, but unable to do so. Perhaps this is because he is looking at it through a literary research lens rather than a historical one, but digital history in itself, while making resources more accessible, can also alienate smaller organizations who lack the funding, know-how, and man power to digitize their collection. Therefore, if we rely solely on digital representation of a subject, we most certainly not getting a full pictures. Especially of marginalized and underrepresented groups–I’m sure there is a large presence of historical documentation pertaining to white men digitally, but what of Native communities?

I also think it is important to note that he is a literary scholar, not a historian (or at least not in the traditional context) as I mentioned above. Therefore, I think some of his statements about humanities scholars being slow to act on digital research methods are somewhat inaccurate within the world of historical research. While it is true that digital libraries and databases are a relatively new tool in the historian’s toolkit (as well as all the other tools he discusses), I think he has overlooked some notable early trailblazers who complied the sort of quantitative data he ascribes to scientists in conjunction with the qualitative data that comes out of traditional close reading methods. The first text which came to when reading his history of digital humanities was Mark E. Neely’s The Fate of Liberty which was published in 1992 and won the Pulitzer Prize for history the same year. This book was somewhat ground breaking in that Neely used quantitative data to find patterns in court cases around the United States during the Civil War regarding jailing during Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. This, coupled with close readings of those documents led him to groundbreaking results and subsequent notoriety. Therefore despite his inclusion of the quote from Mark Olsen who in 1993 said “computerized textual research has not had significant influence on research in the humanistic disciples,” Neely’s 1992 work disproves this timeline. And although this is only one example, I still feel like credit should be given where credit is due.

Despite my three paragraphs of complaint (forgive my growing pains as I become accustomed to this new, digital, approach–change is hard) I think one of the most important things Jockers introduces as part of the digital “revolution” is the revolution in approach and thought process. To remain relevant in an increasingly paperless world (queue the Office reference), historians need to think outside the box, or perhaps in this case, outside the physical archive and appeal to a larger audience though keen manipulation of the digital tools which are available to them. That being said, I think we also ought not to forget our foundations in the non-digital world. I wonder what conclusions Herodotus would have drawn had he used Wordle when he wrote The Histories.  

Introduction to Amanda

Hello All!

My name is Amanda and I am in my last semester of undergrad at AU. I am in the 5-year program with my undergraduate degree being in history with a minor in anthropology as well as in the beginnings of an M.A. in public history. This class will be the last 3 credits I share with both degrees. I’m originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but came to D.C. about 3.5 years ago to attend AU for undergrad. Since then, I’ve pretty much never left. I always loved history (I once photoshopped myself into a photo of Thomas Jefferson my senior year of high school and put it into a presentation I gave to my APUSH class) and new that I would pursue it with my undergrad degree, but knowing that I didn’t want to be a teacher or educator, I wasn’t sure what I would do much farther than that. Eventually I realized I loved material culture and its interpretation, especially to a lay audience (yeah, I know I said in the sentence before I DIDN’T want to go into education, but I tell myself this is different) and have since pursued opportunities in which I am able to do this. I mostly interested in the history of popular culture (I’m writing my senior capstone on Titanic museum exhibits) as I see it as a great “gateway” topic for non-history people to get excited about the past.

I figured my clear route would be to work in collections management in some way or form, so initially this is what I told people I wanted to do. Two communications internships at historically-oriented organizations later, and I can tell you I’m just as confused about my career path as I was when I started college. That being said, I’m in my second semester of an internship at the White House Historical Association in the marketing and communications department and I love it. I think trying to convince the press to write about history as well as brainstorming ways to expand our reach is both exciting and fulfilling. Now it’s just a matter of managing my expectations of what I thought I would be doing with the reality of what I have actual experience in. Nonetheless, I am in this class because I think technology plays an important, and often overlooked, role in the interpretation of the past and while my internship experiences have given me some foundation in said technology, I think it is important to better familiarize myself with it in order to make myself a more dynamic student of history. I’m really excited for the finally digital history project as I think it will be a great opportunity for me to apply some of my own struggles I’ve had with my current research on Titanic exhibits to a digital tool that could potentially help others one day.

Outside of history, I love trying new foods, animals (I purposefully chose an apartment right next to the zoo), and rewatching the same 5 tv shows I’ve been watching since high school. I am really looking forward to getting to know you all as being an undergrad history major at AU can be somewhat isolating as most people are studying politics or international studies, and as such, I only have a handful of friends who are studying history as their primary major–so I spend a lot of time with non-history people and am therefore always excited to meet new history lovers!

Best,

Amanda Laughead