The Walt Whitman Archive – Warwick 1
1What are the strengths of this archive? How would you use or refer to this site in your own work?
Reader in Digital Humanities, Department of Information Studies; Director, Centre for Digital Humanities – University College London
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The Whitman archive is an example of excellent practice in the creation of digital scholarly resources. Its layout is simple, clear and easy to understand and navigate. It is obvious to a user where she is in the site, how to return to where she started from and what its various contents are. This might seem basic, but many resources, perhaps particularly those designed by and for academics tend not to pay enough attention to the basics of good design and usability, and can, as a result be confusing and frustrating for users. Since we make decisions about web pages in fractions of a second[ref]G. Lindgaard, C. Dudek, F. Fernandes, and J. Brown, “Attention Web Designers: You Have 50 Milliseconds to Make a Good First Impression,” Behaviour & Information Technology 25 (2005): 115-126.[/ref] and humanities users, in particular, are easily deterred from using a resource that seems untrustworthy to them[ref]Claire Warwick, M. Terras, P. Huntington, and N. Pappa, “If You Build It Will They Come? The LAIRAH Study: Quantifying the Use of Online Resources in the Arts and Humanities through Statistical Analysis of User Log Data,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23:1 (2008): 85-102.[/ref] it is vital that such simple considerations as the look and functionality of the site should instantly seem comprehensible and comfortable for users.[ref]Dana Wheeles, “Accessibility, Usability and the New Face of NINES” Literary and Linguistic Computing 25:4 (2010). Forthcoming.[/ref]
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One of the most impressive things about the Whitman archive is that it can be addressed in different ways depending on the level of expertise the user may have: this is by no means common in scholarly digital resources. As someone who was once worked on English, but not American, literature and who now regards herself as a full time Digital Humanist, I know relatively little about Walt Whitman’s life and career. As a result of using the archive, however, I was able to find a considerable amount of information at an appropriate level. In other words, this was content of a level well beyond the introductory but which was not simply directed at other Whitman scholars and other expert users. This is a surprisingly difficult balance to achieve in any medium but seems especially challenging in the digital one. Many digital scholarly resources tend to assume that their users will be experts in the subject matter. This is not necessarily the case and as a result non-expert users may easily be confused or lose interest.[ref]Warwick et al., “If You Build It.”[/ref] This seems particularly perverse, since digital resources are an excellent way for scholars to engage with those outside academia who share their interests and to encourage those with an interest to become to sufficiently intrigued that they become the experts of the future. If the non-expert user is deterred, how will they make progress to expertise? This is an opportunity that the Whitman archive has fully understood.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This does not mean that expert users are neglected, however. The archive has evidently been designed with the needs of its academic users in mind. For example, scholars interested in the language of poetry who may want to run linguistic analysis software on these texts will be particularly please that the full TEI marked up texts are available for downloading from the archive as well as being presented on line. The fact that such texts and detailed markup guidelines are available is an example of excellent practice and also rather unusual. Even some of the best TEI practitioners can seem somewhat nervous of making their markup decisions so public, and many digital humanities resources only make texts available as post-processed XHTML.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 There is also a clear understanding on the part of the Archive’s creators of the way that scholars prefer to work in digital and physical environments. We know, for example, that however many resources are digitised scholars generally want to see the originals. It is now well known that the more digital resources are available the higher the demand that tends to be for original material. As a result, it is especially welcome that the archive has provided such detailed guidance as to how the original materials may be accessed with full bibliographic records. This means that scholars are able to consult manuscript images and transcriptions before they visit physical archives, which enhances, rather than disrupts their use of archival material. This is a particularly effective use of digital resources to complement physical ones.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One of the most impressive features of the Whitman Archive is that documentation about the project is so easy to access. As we recommended in the LAIRAH study[ref]Claire Warwick, I. Galina, M. Terras, P. Huntington, and N. Pappa, “The Master Builders: LAIRAH Research on Good Practice in the Construction of Digital Humanities Projects,” Literary and Linguistic Computing 23:3 (2008): 383-396.[/ref] there is a top level link from the title page to documentation about the project. Under this link are to be found a great variety of very useful documents telling readers and users just about anything they might want to know about the archive in terms of its scholarly principles, history, technical standards and encoding guidelines. It is also clear who its creators are their expertise and how this has been used to take decisions about the creation and direction of the archive. This excellent feature is surprisingly difficult to find in many digital archives, editions or resources. However, it is vital, since users require users require this type of contextual information about the processes used to select and interpret data. In the print medium we have evolved techniques and processes to indicate that a selection and evaluation process has taken place (the footnote, the imprimatur, the authorial biography, the bibliography) In the digital world such things are still developing and the digital still remains, for many academic users in particular, less trustworthy than print.[ref]Warwick et al., “If You Build It.”[/ref]
The footnotes you provide about site design and user experience are really helpful.
Good point about the necessary interrelation between digital and physical archives: the goal of the digital archive isn’t to supplant the physical one, but to work alongside it.