This week’s readings for Clio I got into basic nuts and bolts of disseminating history on the Web, particularly planning and design of websites. For me, they were quite useful as I think about putting my own projects on the Web.
Some of the design principles discussed in the readings were familiar to me from taking an exhibition design class and working at an exhibition design firm–rules about contrast, length and width of text, etc., hold consistently true for both Web sites and exhibitions, since both are means of conveying content beyond the medium of black text on paper.
Others are quite different, owing to the different nature of the media. The information architecture of a museum exhibition differs from that of a Web site, and that of course influences how one goes about designing. In the museum world, one must plan for conveying content in a three-dimensional way, leading to a different user experience and different impact (as my classmate Claire points out in her insightful post).
Before going into the museum exhibition world, I had not thought much about design principles. Indeed, I probably would not have thought as much about design without that experience and without diving into digital history, as I am now. While reading this week’s selections from A List Apart and Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History, it struck me how thinking of information architecture and design is, in some ways, a revolution for many historians.
Since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press (and one could argue before that time, taking into account scribes), historians have relied upon others to design our means of knowledge dissemination. As Cohen and Rosenzweig correctly note, citing Mike O’Malley, the typically black written word, whether in article or book form, has been the traditional way of disseminating historical knowledge for centuries.
We submit the our text–using a general information architecture that has been relatively unchanged–and someone from the publisher lays it out on the page. If we’re lucky, we get to include images. From my time at the Alamo I remember the day the curator’s galleys for his latest book came back. The only revelatory part of that experience was the cover. The medium simply did not permit much variation in the text, and the information conveyed remained the same as when the curator had handed printed Word documents to reviewers and others.
Even in museum exhibitions, the design is often outsourced to specialty firms. While those working on the content side are taught to think about design (although others discourage such thinking, saying it’s not the content person’s job), the designers actually execute it. They think about color, font, the space, and even the the information architecture. The content person works with the designer–perhaps more closely than the author of a book–and perhaps suggests tweaks, but is in the end not the person responsible for the design.
In other words, traditionally historians have been responsible for the information architecture of their dissemination of knowledge, if even that. In this digital age, we also need to think about the design of that means of dissemination. Not only that, we are presented with more means of information architecture.
On top of that, we’re dealing with Metadata, traditionally the realm of museum collections managers, librarians, and archivists, more first-hand now. This is probably why, for me, this week’s readings on metadata were a greater challenge than those on design. Whenever we place primary sources on our sites–whether they be museum objects, archival documents, references to books–we are creating the metadata appropriate for our websites, or at least figuring out how to convey the standard metadata. Thus, knowledge about that realm is important as well.
I see all of this as both empowering and scary (update: I see I’m not the only one). Empowering because it gives historians full control–in some ways, more than a profession that has typically worked solo is used to.
It can also be scary. The responsibility for conveying the content in an attractive, logical way (barring a budget for outsourcing design) is now on the historian’s shoulders. The metadata is no longer the realm of the museum collections manager, archivist, or librarian. It is now our realm, at least for our own work.
Overall, I find this change positive. Knowing about design, information architecture, and metadata can only enhance our work, whether for the Web or not. So all in all, the turn toward the digital, and the attendant new skills historians must learn (and that I am grateful to learn), will facilitate our interactions with the professionals who are part of our work otherwise, whether librarians, archivists, museum collections managers, publishers, or designers of all stripes.