The Devil in the Details

Modules 4 and 5 have been incredibly helpful in guiding my thinking about my project as I revise Weaving Our Story both structurally and conceptually.  The original version of the project was initially conceived only as an archive, and the exhibit features were added as an additional requirement.  The process of creating both the archive and the exhibit did not include a deliberate process for strategically planning either of those features in advance. Working through these modules has helped me to rethink the entire project as I design it for specific audiences, taking into account how a particular persona moves through the site as well as crafting content to elicit engagement.

Structurally, the archive is based on a textual search.  However, if a person is unfamiliar with the contents of the collection, it will be difficult to know what terms to search.  As Sherratt notes, “recordkeeping systems tend to reflect the structures and power relations of the organisations that create them.”  I was completely familiar with the particular terms the user should type into the search box; unfortunately, the user might not be as familiar.

Though some exceptional visitors to the site might successfully find films in a search using keyword tags, these results would not be curated in a way that would highlight the connections evident to a person more familiar with the collection.  A “successful” search might result in three or four related films being trucked out into the lobby (to borrow a metaphor from “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”) for the individual to view; however, the search results would lack any kind of contextual information to elicit deeper understanding for the viewer.

In order to overcome this deficiency, the original site assembled selected films into exhibits with accompanying text and questions.  However, these curated exhibit pages relied heavily on Omeka’s default interface.  As a result, the tool was driving the way searches were conducted as well as the way exhibits were curated.  The goal of this project is to turn that situation on its head.  Instead of the tool driving the process, thoughtful planning is meant to drive the project toward the right tool (or tools) and to curated content that is purposeful.

Both “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections” and “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People” emphasize the importance of ways that communicating visually rather than textually can invite a higher and often more successful degree of interaction from the user.  Having a robust visual interface both in creating exhibits and in conducting searches are key features I want to include in the revised Weaving Our Story project.

In thinking through the purposes and audiences for which I am designing, I have come to understand that multiple tools can be used for various purposes.  While Omeka is still a good choice for archiving the large number of items the collection will eventually contain, it is not a useful platform for designing the level of visual engagement my project needs.  I have created a new domain with a cleaner name – simply and will use subdirectories for each individual tool.  At this point, I have not migrated the Omeka items from the original project site to the new site because I want to spend some time adjusting the metadata to insure accuracy.

After doing some research, I landed on SCALAR, a publishing platform that has a diverse collection visually appealing pages designed with a variety of purposes in mind.  One of these pages allows me to assemble a more generous interface for my inquiry level search creating a collage of selected items in the collection.  I am able to import the items directly from the Omeka archive by enabling the API.  This allows the items to be exported with their metadata intact.  Instead of typing a key word, the user will click on a visually engaging picture that will draw her into a curated exhibit page.

However, instead of the exhibit pages driving the layout of the site as they do in Omeka, Scalar’s set up allows exhibit pages to weave together more organically, much like a network visualization might do.  And, like the manner in which the Invisible Australians project blends a Zotero site into the navigational links, my project will incorporate a WordPress blog for teachers in a different subdirectory.  Though I am using three different tools, each blends with the other to create an overall look of cohesiveness.  Downloading the Customeka theme helped me to design the Omeka archive to thematically mirror the look of Scalar.  WordPress offers a variety of customizable themes that also mirror the look of Scalar.

Once the structure is in place, keeping the message on point and specific will be critical to making sure the site is engaging once the viewer has been drawn into using the visual interface.  The text does matter at this stage of the process, and making sure that the content delivers a clear message to a target audience appropriately is critical.  Keeping the content concise and focused will help the audience to maintain interest.  As Fisher notes, managing the scale of project is critical to preventing boredom and overkill.  Finding a balance is critical.  With more careful planning the second time around, my aim is to build a better project by ensuring that the foundational principles are rooted in sound practices of public history.

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