The Importance of Interface

In Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections, Mitchell Whitelaw writes the following about the increase in digital collections in recent years:

This is a truly generous mass: large, abundant, ample. Yet in response to this abundance, collection interfaces wheel out miserly lists, one page at a time. Generosity entails more than scale, too: another of its senses describes an ethos of giving or sharing freely.These values tally well with the aims of many collecting institutions — especially public institutions, mandated to provide broad and open access. But here too, search is ungenerous. It fails to be liberal in sharing: instead of throwing open the doors, its greeting is “Yes, what?”

While I agree with this statement, the idea that digitizing meets the mandate of providing broad and open access is not true. Is a collection truly accessible if the user interface is as described in the beginning of this article? In the same way an open source software is not accessible if it doesn’t include documentation, a digitized collection without a generous interface is useless. As Whitelaw alludes to, using research on Information Retrieval and User Experience, users reliably follow certain models of search, and one particular facet of search is that if there is too much resistance in the search, they’ll abandon it completely. This is not new to the digital age, but can be seen in visiting physical locations of a library or archive, with too many barriers the location becomes inaccessible. Archive or Library anxiety can set in and suddenly any resources that are housed in that location are off limits.

One of my favorite digital projects that is particularly useful to my own research is Mapping Titian a project developed by Jodi Cranston at Boston University. In evaluating the project using Whitelaw’s standards, it seems the Mapping Titian project has developed a generous interface. One particular facet is the idea of representing the collection

Notably in order to understand the features of a collection that might be represented, we must first represent the collection: the riches and voids in each collection are only evident through a process of exploratory visualisation.

While the catalogue page is simple and includes the entirety of Titian’s painting oeuvre, what makes it stand out is understanding what is missing, which is clearly delineated by an empty frame, the name of the painting, and what happened to it (lost, destroyed, etc. ) It also includes a very prominent “Image Not Available” for paintings that are documented and still extant but do not have images (for example if they’re in a private collection). The project doesn’t currently offer a way to do an advanced search through the images or a way to sort through the images that you browse. What sets this tool apart in not just the collection of Titian images in one place though. The creators have combined mapping data with the collection, that can then be manipulated and visualized. One can decide to view the mapping data of Titian’s Poesie, and see how the pictures dispersed after leaving Phillip’s collection. There’s also the possibility to see the provenance data in an animated timeline.

Ultimately, the interface is almost as important as the digital objects themselves. Without a good interface to facilitate the access and exploration of digitized material, the material is essentially ineffective.