The chapters in the section, Analytic Autoethnography: Curatorial Decisions, are designed to provide a transparent look into the processes that have shaped and guided the development of the archive. From examining the archive’s conceptualization through to its artifact collection procedures, these chapters offer insight into the decisions surrounding archive curation—how and why the artifacts came to be part of the archive. Including these discussion within the archive is a recognition that these decisions powerfully shape the archival construct, which has implications for how the archive is used and the artifacts are understood, and that giving users access to the often invisible acts of framing is an equally powerful way to account for curatorial biases and interestedness.
The last chapter of this section, offered here, is designed to offer users a window into how the digital exhibit and interface were designed and the rationale for how these design decisions were made. The exhibit available online represent only a selection of artifacts from the totality of the archive, and these images and recordings are further edited and framed in additional layers of the curation process. How the artifacts are edited, grouped, organized, described, and connected; how the site is aesthetically presented; how the search functionality is developed; and how the exhibit navigation is determined are all significant decisions for which the archivist must account. The inclusion of the following Curation Notes is an effort to both document the archival process itself, seeing value in better understanding the material realities of digital archive projects, and leave traces of the curatorial framing that is operating on the user experience. Like the other autoethnographic chapters, these notes provide an activity log and narrative reflection of the interface development and conclude with a discussion of considerations for the field based on the identifiable themes contained within the narratives.
Curation Note 1: Establishing the Exhibit Space
Curation Note 2: Reconsidering the Exhibit Pages
Curation Note 3: Addressing the Literature Review
Curation Note 4: Finalizing the Exhibit Organization
Curation Note 5: Editing and Loading Artifacts
Curation Note 6: Upgrading Site and Tagging Media
Curation Note 7: Editing and Exhibiting Audio Files
Curation Note 8: Optimizing Dissertation Text Chapters Presentation
Accomplishing and Reaccomplishing
By far, the most frequent consideration from the curation notes was the idea that the work of digital design is a process of accomplishing and reaccomplishing. I discussed this concept in more detail in Curation Note 1, but the concept comes from Karl Weick, an organizational theorist, who writes, “Emergent change consists of ongoing accommodations, adaptations, and alterations that produce fundamental change without a priori intentions to do so. Emergent change occurs when people reaccomplish routines and when they deal with contingencies, breakdowns, and opportunities in everyday work. Much of this change goes unnoticed because small alterations are lumped together as noise in otherwise uneventful inertia” (237). What strikes in this discussion, is the idea that change occurs in a series of routines that are first accomplished and then accomplished again. It is the idea that our work is not happening in a linear fashion where a task is completed and then finished without further alteration. These routines are repeated whenever we face breakdowns or new opportunities, but we often do not see these accumulated changes that occur over time and repetition. If we only see a project, for example, in a meeting presentation, we do not see the hundreds of minor decisions and edits, the reworking of the project, that comes before that presentation, which renders that work invisible or indistinguishable as disparate actions. This is exactly what it feels like to work on digital projects. In just the first note, I undertook a series of routine tasks, creating pages and adding media. However, as I encountered breakdowns in the functioning between the appearance of the images in the production stage and the published page, I had to reaccomplish the work to get it right. Users would never see these previous iterations that are written over as I work to correct problems. Then once the site was upgraded, I had to once again reaccomplish the work of loading images on the site pages. The time and energy invested in each accomplished action is subsumed by the singularity of the final site.
It is not necessarily groundbreaking to observe that composition processes are recursive, and it is important to think of historiographic work as a kind of composition. We understand that we draft and revise repeatedly to work toward a finished discourse. However, this process seems different that the recursivity of writing. In my experience writing, I might reorganize an outline or redraft sections, add evidence or edit text for clarity and concision, but the number of times I address one section is probably limited to one or two revisions in most cases. Yet in the work done just on the exhibit main page, I have probably created somewhere between 10 and 20 versions of the page. Each time I am either correcting an error or taking advantage of a new opportunity or idea in the design. While this is at least in part a function of my own ability, having to correct errors made out of ignorance, I think it is also due in large part to the number of components involved in digital design. In an essay, for example, I have the content and the relatively easy to use word processing software, but in the WordPress platform there is the content in both text and media and the far more complicated editing platform that has exponentially more possibilities for formatting than I would need to use an average essay. There is all the metadata for each image, combined with the captioning, sizing, and image editing that goes into preparing a file for the site and its appearance online. The arrangement of the content presents even further options and opportunities to embed an error; a heading can have up to four different options, and keeping them consistent across a page adds additional content that requires an attention to detail. I find it is much easier to miss a detail that requires reverting the page to a draft and editing the content, which can take numerous attempts before it is correct. Plus, as new pages are added, it often presents an opportunity to connect to previously drafted content, so I would find myself reopening pages for editing to create those connections. The way in which we create boundaries around stages of development is artificially introducing divisions between types of decisions where there is actually more interdependence. Although these divisions helps manage the workload and create some structures within which we can operate, it can lead to the false impression that how we create can be compartmentalized without affecting other areas of the design.
While each action in and of itself may not be difficult or time-consuming, it represents a kind of necessary repetition that was unexpected when I first started the project. The mundane tasks are reaccomplished, and probably will be need to be so long as a digital site stays live—unlike a published paper that lives in a more fixed way in print. It may look from the exterior to be a single iteration, but it likely represents hundreds of small changes. Another way that the digital object differs from a traditional publication is that there is also an instability of digital objects as technology advances and earlier versions lose support and code becomes obsolete or incompatible with updated programs. Whereas a chapter of an edited collection stays relatively stable on the shelf, the digital publication will need an ongoing investment to maintain its function and accessibility. Digital design and production is inherently labor-intensive, but it seems to be more readily dismissed by those unfamiliar with this type of work. It is strongly recommended that archivists work to document their work, like in the screencasts used in the curation notes or in an activity log of some kind, and work to share this labor with others to help bring more awareness of and recognition for what is required in the production of digital objects.
Costs and Design
Of the eight Curation Notes included in this chapter, five included a consideration for how funding and costs were constraining the project. As discussed in the Funding chapter, archival work is constrained by costs, and balancing an archival vision with the financial constraints will be a constant tension that will shape the design. Archival work is also fundraising work, for both start-up and long-term maintenance. However, what I realized in this work of designing the interface was that the design and function of the exhibit will also be significantly shaped by available funds. So often in the development of the WordPress site, I confronted a design element that required an upgraded site, such as tagging individual media or being able to host audio files. Things that are integral to the exhibit functioning the way it needs to in order to best display the archival contents and present a professional appearance, like having banner advertisements removed, require converting the site from a free blog to a purchased website.
The most basic upgrade at $96 per year would remove the ads and allow for some minor additional functionality, such as increasing the allowable data storage to 6 GB and removing adds, but the ability to add plug-ins to enhance the functions beyond the embedded features of the theme and basic editing software requires an upgrade to the Business plan for $300 per year. This also includes one year of the domain name registration, but the domain name and the upgraded site will both expire at the end of the annual subscription. This means that hosting the site beyond one year will require additional $300 annual investments. Obviously, this requires the kind of ongoing funding that makes long-term sustainability of the site more questionable. While I am committed to this project, and I look forward to continuing to grow the archive and conduct additional research into user experience and cultural rhetoric, it is difficult to see how the project could be sustained indefinitely without additional efforts to conduct fundraising or obtain additional grant support. It makes the likelihood of confronting a collaboration decision more probably as time goes on. It may ultimately be necessary for maintaining the project to cede complete authority over its design and presentation to a partner institution that could better preserve the artifacts for the long-term. Although I have a personal interest in the level of ownership and portability to the project I currently maintain, I would rather serve the needs of the cultural stakeholders than my own professional needs, which means that transferring the archive to an institution would be acceptable as a way to preserve their access and give respect to the contributions given to the archive.
I think that the very real material needs of funding a digital archive need further attention in the field, and for researchers to ensure that adequate attention is given to funding prior to undertaking a new project. Collaboration may be a viable solution to bringing in multiple streams of financial support, but sharing control does have implications for design, as I learned in conversations with my home institution library and their use of uniform interface design across all digital collections. This also has implications for researchers who need to make a commitment to participants. The ongoing need to funds will require ongoing attention and investment on the part of the researcher. Even if research interests change over time, when asking cultural stakeholders to give their time and trust to the researcher and the project there is an implicit responsibility to care for the contributions without abandoning them for other work. The issues of participant trust and funding are interconnected, and pursuing an archival project without an appropriate commitment to pursuing funding and honoring participants should be considered an ethical breach. Considering the extension of archival work to fundraising is necessary.
Prior Knowledge and Limitations of Designer Expertise
When I was working on the first Curation Note, I realized that one of the most powerful influences on my decision-making had to do with my prior experience in digital design. Because I had developed a previous project using WordPress, it seemed to be the best idea to use the platform again. This proved to have advantages and disadvantages for the design. I was more comfortable using the system and had some knowledge of its platform, which helped me work more efficiently and expediently. It helped me feel more confident about the project when it all seemed so tenuous at the beginning with so much to do to bring my vision to fruition. I think it also helped to decrease the frustration that one often feels when trying to work with technology that is unfamiliar. However, as I discovered later in the process, the decision to use WordPress may also have limited my design possibilities. I recall contacting a WordPress expert through the help chat feature, and when I described what I wanted to be able to do with the image tagging, the response was that WordPress was not really designed to support such a granular level of media management. Although I was able to find an appropriate work around using a plug-in, it was somewhat shocking to discover that I had come so far in the process of building the exhibit, having spent countless hours on the site, only to hear that it would probably be better for me to look at other platforms, like Contentdm as the chat expert suggested. It is daunting to think of starting the exhibit over from scratch on a new platform, and I know from previous research that the costs associated with other platforms, ones more closely associated with professional institutions and libraries, would far exceed the costs associated with WordPress.
While using a platform that the researcher is familiar with may have advantages of efficiency, it is worth noting that these foundational decisions are highly determinative. The platform choice dictates what is possible in terms of design and function, so while familiarity has its benefits, it should not be the only factor that goes into the decision. In retrospect, it may have been better for me to look more closely at other options, researching more deeply the kinds of projects that are supported by the platform, how its designers intend it to be used and what has been embedded in the available structures. While it may have been difficult to learn a new technology at first, it may have resulted in an increased ability to design the site with greater flexibility and suitability for the project. I think that WordPress is, maybe not surprisingly given the name of the platform, intended more for text-based sites. The digital archive is far more dedicated to media presentation, so using a platform with greater management capabilities, such as more control over media metadata, for media content would be useful.
This issue speaks to another consideration that came up during the exhibit curation, which is that designing a digital project is limited by the designer’s knowledge and expertise in ways that may not be evident at the start. I think I imagined that anything I would want to do in terms of the design, any function or aesthetic of the visual presentation, would be possible, that I could figure out the technology needed to make that work. Obviously, it was naive. People invest years in educational programs to learn web design, coding, and digital graphic design, and they spend entire careers applying that knowledge in practice while continuing to develop skills. While I am capable and enthusiastic, it was often the case that the imagined design I might have in mind was not readily achievable with the knowledge I possessed. Even my attempts at times to research certain functions, like using page jumps to connect content from one page to a specific area of another page, resulted in confronting long strings of code that I could neither read nor grasp where and how to embed it. Non-expert designers will need to rely on the pre-constructed templates and editing platform available functions in order to bring a project to completion. This means that we are not starting with a blank slate; it is not like painting a picture on a blank canvas with limitless possibilities. Rather, it is like being given a coloring book page. I can choose the colors, maybe even add some minor details in the margins of the page, but ultimately I am constrained by the permanent lines already drawn.
The limitation of designer knowledge is another reason why collaboration may be necessary. Even in terms of selecting the platform, getting insight from others is crucial. We don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t always see the blind spots or potential problems if we do not have the experience, but others who are more knowledgeable may be able to identify critical issues. I learned this when I encountered the need to use audio editing software. This time I put a call out on social media using #AcademicTwitter and #AcademicChatter requesting advice for a program to use. I received numerous responses and overwhelmingly saw that Audacity would be a good program to use for my needs. I was able to pursue it confidently, knowing so many were able to learn the program and use it to meet their needs, even though I myself had no prior experience. Just searching on my own, it is overwhelming to make a decision with so many options. In the end, even though learning the new program required some time and energy, with a steep learning curve, I was able to persist and accomplish my goals. Keeping in mind the recommendations from so many other scholars, I never questioned whether the choice was right, and I was able to avoid time-consuming explorations into other programs or the kind of self-doubt I might have had about my ability to learn it.
Researchers will need to be realistic about their knowledge and expertise when it comes to the digital aspects of their projects. It is necessary to recognize that the production of digital objects is constrained by many factors, including the designers own knowledge and the limitation of the digital platform selected. It is also necessary to recognize that bringing in experts to assist with the digital design components may result in creating outcomes that more closely resemble the designer’s ideal vision, building on the expert’s ability, but this does not come without a cost. These services are an additional consideration for how to spend what are always limited funds, and there is the ongoing issue that even if the services are acquired in the formative stages, if the product ends up being complexly encoded or integrated into specialized systems, then the designer may not have the expertise to take over ongoing maintenance or to make adjustments as the archive grows. It is also important to discuss the project with experts, or at least consult the “hive mind” of one’s extended networks. Even if an expert does not actively assist in the development, these more casual consultations can provide important leads for researchers or may identify potential pitfalls. Researchers should not be naive about the complexity of digital design and should solicit external opinions in the best interest of the project.
Ideal Design and Practical Possibilities
In almost every note, I was reminded that there is an ideal version of the project that exists in my imagination. But that vision exists in tension with what can be practically accomplished. Digital production is a lot like composition I think. There is always a more perfect expression of an idea, a clearer articulation in words of what exists in the mind. As writers, we do our best to capture the ideas and communicate them in a way that reflects the idea with veracity; however, whether as a function of ability or time, what is eventually presented to the reader is at best a reflection of that ideal, an approximation the writer must accept. The same feels true about the digital composition process. The ideal vision is difficult to articulate perfectly in the deliverable product. We can revise and learn new techniques, hone our skills in practice and under the guidance of experts, but there is a gap between how perfectly something can be imagined and the compromises of what is achievable in reality.
That achievable reality is, as discussed earlier, a function sometimes of designer’s knowledge and ability and platform features, but it can also be a function of time and the tension between ideas and the execution of those ideas. Often, the thinking and imagining that takes place while working on the digital design outpaces the ability to execute those ideas. There is a flood of creativity, but the time needed to develop one idea is quickly overwhelmed by the running list of things that need to be accomplished. I addressed the issue by starting a Task List to keep track of all the new ideas as they came up, trying to capture the creative and enthusiastic ways of thinking about how the project could look and function. For example, I remember loading the descriptions into each media file and thinking about how I could develop further connections by linking to external content. There are several artifacts related to the Holy Ghost feasts in Bristol, and I was able to find several short videos on YouTube of various aspects of the feast, from the processions to the dancing and the music. I thought it would be interesting to add a kind of “for further information” link from the artifact description to the videos. However, simply trying to get all the artifacts described and tagged was such a significant investment of time, and there were still so many things that needed to be prioritized over adding that kind of depth. It was not possible to keep up with the speed of recognizing new possibilities, so the ideas get added to a list for some future date. The ideal that the list represents lives in conflict with how much time I have to complete the project.
That time is driven not only by institutional deadlines, such as those imposed by a dissertation submission deadline for example, but also by a sense of delivering a product to stakeholders in a timely fashion. I have felt a pressure since collecting the interviews and artifacts in 2017 to produce a usable archive as quickly as possible so participants could see their contributions and know that they had been handled in a respectful manner. The longer it takes to deliver this archive, the more pressure I felt to deliver something worthy of that time and to make sure participants did not think that I had abandoned the project or wasted their time with no follow through. To that end, the tension between creating a functioning site and taking the time to build the more idealized version seemed to exert an additional pressure. Where I could potentially take more time, such as in the tagging of audio files that would require a conversion of each file to a new format, would need to be weighed against how much longer that would take to complete and delay release to the community. It becomes a question of needs versus wants in many cases; judging between what does the archive need to function and present a professional face to the community and what I might want the archive to do or how it could look given more investment of time. I often found myself settling on an imperfect version of the archive in the interest of making forward progress toward the deliverable, leaving some “not quite right” decisions in place to be addressed at a later date. The design itself, constrained as it is by knowledge and funding, will likely never be perfect, but researchers should consider the exigency that exists at the heart of the conceptualization for the project. If there is an urgency for justice, to develop the archive as a response to acts of marginalization, to mediate that inequity, then there is also an urgency to create a usable archive and a greater purpose, superseding design, that requires timely action.
Considering the User
Considering the users’ needs is an important function of the designer’s role in the project. I have already discussed that considering stakeholders’ rights to a timely delivery of an archival project once they have contributed content is one way that the needs of others shape design processes, especially in terms of how long the designer works on a particular aspect of the project while balancing functional needs versus ideal forms. However, there are also considerations that are given to users that work to shape other aspects of the project, where prioritizing the users’ needs over the designers’ goals can be seen as well. For example, when it came time to name the site, I had to think about what would be easy to type into the address bar, what would be easy to say and understand, to talk about and share in a manageable way. While I love the beauty of the Portuguese language and the words for memories and remembrances, the length and complexity of the spelling of those words seemed an impractical choice from the perspective of users. It may have been my personal choice, I knew it would be important to choose a title in English that was shorter and simpler. In that sense, I sacrificed my own desire for what would be better for users.
At other times, I had to push through a challenge in order to appropriately convey information to the user about the exhibit. For example, when I was trying to find the best way to present the family collections, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to present the thumbnail images in a horizontal grid as opposed to the vertical stack. I was incredibly fixated on the idea that a top to bottom arrangement would convey significance about the collections at the top, or that users might click more on the collections at the top and be less willing to scroll down to see the collections toward the bottom. I also had these same questions of conveying prioritization in the layout of the menu pages. I felt that what was on the left would take precedence over the pages toward the right, simply because we read from left to right, putting the left-hand items in a “first” position. In both instances, what I wanted was not different from what I thought might be best from a user’s perspective, like in the example of the site’s title, but my decisions were made around considerations of how users might construct meaningful conclusions or how the structure might imply certain hierarchies of importance. In the case of the exhibit, I absolutely did not want to convey anything close to a hierarchical order, privileging some families over others, so thinking about how users might approach the site became an important part of why I was adamant about pursuing a grid structure. However, in the case of the menu pages, it was important to imply that the exhibit should take precedence over the dissertation chapters. I wanted to subsume my own use of the archive as a scholarly project underneath the uses of the archive that could meet the needs of cultural stakeholders. I understand, in both instances, that arrangement communicates significance.
Even now, I am still concerned about the balance between what is my scholarship about the archive and the archive itself, and if there is going to be any sort of hierarchy, I want to channel users’ attention toward the archival images more than my own discussion of that work. Placing a thumbnail image at the end of the exhibit page to link to the research chapters is still a decision about which I am unsure, worrying it might detract from the contributors or be an inappropriate insertion of myself into the exhibit. Despite these concerns, I think my feelings that the components of how the archive was made should be considered an integral part of the exhibit brought me to the conclusion that there should be a more deliberate connection between the outcome and the invested work. In the end, what this reflection reveals is that design requires critical thinking about the conclusions a user could draw. These conclusions must help shape the design process in order to ensure an ethical outcome. While it would certainly be possible, and in some cases easier, to design in a way that simplifies the process from the perspective of the designer, such as a simple stacking of images without investing time in sourcing solutions for alternate structures, but the result would breach the community trust within the archivist to deliver an archive that serves their own needs. Considering the user may not always lead to simple solutions or efficient design, but it will bring the project into alignment with stakeholder priorities more readily than approaching design as a separate step of the project that will not affect interpretive actions. The design must be just as much a part of an ethics of care as any other aspect of the project, which is why universal design may not be the best option for archivists. Libraries that have one standard interface for all digital collections may find that this streamlines the process of digitization and allows more collections to be processed in less time, but it does not allow for design that considers how different stakeholders may want to access the information and how design can best serve the unique needs of the collection.
Design as Argument
In Reciprocal Gifts, I explore the scholarship around the rhetoric of the interface, specifically how the interface functions a form of persuasive argument and as an authored composition with all the attending biases of authorial positionality. However, the specific use of tagging provides a new avenue for exploring the rhetoric of the interface. Tagging media is a form of classification, or taxonomy as it is often referred to in archival studies. Generally, taxonomy decisions, like other areas of archival design, tend to be governed by universal rules and standards to promote uniformity across multiple archives. This can be beneficial to users who do not need to learn a new taxonomical language to navigate through a collection while also making it easier for multiple people to engage in the laborious task of tagging artifacts without deviations within the same collection. The taxonomy systems used by most archivists is based on Robert G. Chenhall’s 1978 System for Classifying Man-Made Objects, which contains over 950 preferred terms for classifying artifacts by applying four terms, in groups ranging from the most broad to most specific: category, class, sub-class, and object. Courtney Rivard argues that traditional archivists argue that such a standardized system “works to maintain the authenticity of the documents” and works “to avoid constantly changing classification systems” that could make it difficult “to actually find relevant information for users” (548). However, she notes that operating outside such standards of classification may be necessary interventionist practices where using such standards could obscure significant epistemological aspects of cultural content that may not be recognized by the hierarchical classification systems. She determines that it is necessary to view “metadata as composition” and engage the work of “crafting an ontology of the archive for their intended audience” (548). In this way, archivists are participating in “feminist and justice-oriented historiographic methods” that are “recovering and reconceiving traces that might not have otherwise been seen” (Rivard 548). Creating a unique tagging system is an important way to counter oppressive hierarchies or linear ways of understanding artifacts, despite the valid reasons to support uniformity for aiding broad research.
Each archivist will need to confront the decisions about classification based not on field standards, but by taking cues from the archive itself. In the case of cultural archives, it may be more important to recognize the culture’s own ways of positioning artifacts than to impose one from an external system. K.J. Rawson argues that we need to “carefully approaching the power involved in archival description and by recognizing the imbalance that exists as an unnamed and invisible force is tasked with classifying named and visible people” (18). The taxonomy created by archivists outside of the cultural community will necessarily reinscribe assumptions, biases, and ways of knowing into the system, so applying the construction to a different group represents the power imbalance Rawson addresses. Kevin Smith also recognizes the potential problems inherent in tagging without a close connection the artifact creators, arguing that “tagging taxonomy developed iteratively and largely without the influence of the public” is likely to result in “connections that map onto, rather than emanate from, the public submissions” (126). For archivists controlling these tagging assignments, it is a “power of interpretation that was in their hands” (Rivard 545). The tagging imposes a way of understanding the artifacts on users, and when it comes to using tags for search functions, the prescribed categories influence interpretation even more because the search results that users can see will include or exclude content exclusively based on the assigned tags.
In my project, I created 59 tags to apply to the artifacts. Although users can search using any keywords they want, the visual impact of seeing the tag list, and the number of items in that tag given in parentheses next to the tag name, is likely to influence what users understand as significant in terms of occurence and what makes the artifact significant. Seeing the totality of categories also reveals how “tags cannot be understood fully on their own” and should instead “be considered in relation to each other and as part of overall meaning-making on the page” (Barton 41). For example, the tag “First Communion” will convey some meaning on its own, but when viewed as part of a larger system that includes other tags such as “Religion,” “Churches,” “Home Altars,” and “Religious Artifacts,” users are more likely to draw conclusions about the significance of religion in the lives of the Azorean-American women than they would just viewing that one tag on its own. The totality of the tags I developed are also a way to make an argument about the values I see as undergirding the Azorean-American culture. Conveying a sense of the values is something I have deliberately tried to accomplish in this archive, and was part of the guiding purpose of the work from its conception. It was a consistent question I asked in each recorded interview and included in each family group’s recorded clips that have been put into the exhibit. Again, by virtue of naming the tags and by showing the number of artifacts that have been assigned to that tag, users will get a sense from the whole of what is important to the culture. The correlation between values and the archive is made by Stephen Browne who, in a discussion of the rhetoric of public commemoration, like the archive presented here that commemorates my experiences within the Azorean-American community, argues that commemorative rhetoric is “ a genre” that “is defined by its capacity to project back onto the audience values it believes to possess already” with an “apparent benignity” that is, in reality, “a powerful instrument of reproduction” (qtd. in Hess 813). The commemorative function is to reflect the values of the audience that the rhetor perceives them to possess, and in doing so, reinforces such values. I argue that the use of tagging is a significant way that this function in enabled. I am composing the tags in accordance with the values I perceive to already be a part of the culture and to reflect these values back to the audience, which powerfully reproduces these values and perpetuates their inclusion in the cultural identity.
Obviously, users examining the artifacts could see different possibilities than what I have pre-selected, but my taxonomy through tagging comes from an authentic place within the community. As a researcher-participant, I am better suited to identify the thematic connections that exist across the content. I am also open to adding tags should other community-members share their own connections. I think this is also an important way for me to communicate about the community in a persuasive way, to offer a kind of declaration about what is important in each artifact and a clear argument about how the artifact should be understood.
In addition to tagging as an argument about cultural values, we can also see tagging according to a collection-based taxonomy, as opposed to the application of an external and standardized system, as a kind of argument about the nature of design itself. It is an argument about whether archival design should be derived from the content, following the specific contours and cultural considerations of the artifacts, or whether good archival design should be uniform and imposed onto the content. While archivists tend to agree with the latter based on principles of consistency, scholars working with archival materials outside the field of archival studies tend to see value in the former. It is a dichotomy centered around whether one is oriented toward seeing the organizational apparatus as the key function of archival work or whether one is oriented toward the exploration of the content itself. Synne Skjulstad and Andrew Morrison take the position that design should follow content needs, arguing that “effective, yet creative and experimental interfaces draw energy and forms of articulation from the nature of the content to be communicated” (417-8). Creating an archive-specific taxonomy is one way that creative interface design can follow the lead of the content and still be an effective design decision despite the non-standardized form because it shifts understanding of what it means to be effective.
We see that effective design is contextually determined, and it does not always mean design that is purely efficient in its ability to get a project completed quickly or to easily accommodate new content. While these priorities may be important from the perspective of digital librarians and archivists who may need to process volumes of artifacts across numerous collections where the goal is to maximize labor and financial resources to digitize as much material as possible, it may need to be reevaluated as an appropriate approach to cultural artifacts. In that case, what is effective is what best reflects cultural ways of making meaning without reinscribing imbalanced power structures from externally situated frameworks.
Lastly, the interface design is an argument about how an archive should balance user autonomy to construct meaningful archival experiences with the need to provide useful contextualization. Interface elements such as section headings, like those organizing and labeling audio files, image captions, descriptions, tags, and page divisions and visibility (whether a section is accessible from the home page or only through navigating through several other pages) are all ways that design shapes how users experience the content. As discussed in the Interface in Rhetoric: Authorship and Digital Rhetoric sub-section of Archival Interface: Designing Access, Inscribing Power, Composing Arguments, the design creates an argument, a rhetoric of possibility, that enables or constrains how users navigate the site, which obviously has implications for what content users see. However, there must also be a balance between how a designer might want users to engage the materials and allowing users to disrupt those prescribed experiences and to chart their own course through the exhibit. Skjulstad and Morrison argue that archival design will certainly influence navigation, but it is also important that “users may select their own pathways through a variety of content in the form of still and moving images and related explanatory text” (419). The design of this exhibit is an attempt to allow for intuitive use. The pages across the top menu do guide users toward the exhibit, but the family collections can be examined in any order, the artifacts can be explored in more detail according to which objects catch users’ attention, and the various ways of searching let users move through the archive in many ways without a specific guide. Even the research chapter can be viewed in any order and without having to consume the work it its entirety. The accordion presentation effectively “hides” some text and allows users to move through only the content they select.
These design features are intended to give users as much choice as possible about how they want to experience the archive, but that freedom has to be balanced with necessary organizational structures. This archive contains over 425 artifacts. Without any interventions, that content would be less useful and would make it more difficult for researchers to locate information or understand how it relates to the collection. From basic interventions such as assigning accession numbers to show which artifacts come from which family to more influential interventions such as excluding some artifacts from the exhibit, curatorial decisions clearly shape user interactions. There does seem to be some sense in the scholarship that an overly-mediated archive is a kind of unethical interference but that some structuring is necessary to facilitate access. Smith argues that “without curation and contextualization, the glut of archival material and individual biases of users may lead to an unfocused or insular experience,” so curatorial mediation “attempts to combat this through the curation of content through thematic exhibits, featured items, and pages of categorized materials” (125). Shaping user experience through design results in “a site that is as rhetorical as the artifacts that it contains” as “curation and featuring of certain types of content makes an argument to users” (125). However, while using curation to construct this argument, to prevent “unfocused” experiences that may negatively shape users’ meaning-making activities, archivists will need to carefully consider how they can work to maintain balance between structure and user autonomy. Margaret Hedstrom frames this issue in a series of critical questions: “Should we create highly structured interfaces that incorporate the archivist’s best judgment about how to exploit a collection or should we encourage users to explore intuitively or randomly? How much power and control do we want users to enjoy? How much power do we, as archivists, wish to share? Should our interfaces reinforce archivists’ perspectives on what constitutes an archives or should we enable users to construct their own notions of archives based on the needs or values that matter most to them?” (42). While there is no single way to answer these questions, they suggest the implications of design on agency and distribution of power of the archival space.
For cultural archives, it is especially important that the balance of power is tilted toward users, especially cultural stakeholders. The goal should be to support intuitive explorations, ways of experiencing the archive that align with culturally-situated ways of knowing, and to elicit a feeling that the community has maintained ownership and belonging, that the archive does not feel like an outsider’s representation of the culture filtered through an external position that only others the community in a scholarly exploitation of the culture. Whether the design decisions introduced here support that goal will require user experience testing and further research into how the archive is experienced. It should be considered an important part of archive creation; it is an extension of the archival processes beyond the development of the archive and the exhibit to include taking responsibility for how the archive is received by stakeholders. There must be a willingness to incorporate changes based on stakeholder feedback, and there must be a recognition of the ethical responsibility to not just acquire artifacts with just practices, but to also ensure that their organizational representations online are also delivered in ways that uphold an ethical position that situates the archivist as a steward serving the artifacts for cultural preservation and distribution and not as the controlling authority over them.
Barton, David. “The Roles of Tagging in the Online Curation of Photographs.” Discourse, Context & Media, vol. 22, Apr. 2018, pp. 39–45.
Hedstrom, Margaret. “Archives, Memory, and Interfaces with the Past.” Archival Science, vol. 2, 2002, pp. 21-43.
Hess, Aaron. “In Digital Remembrance: Vernacular Memory and the Rhetorical Construction of Web Memorials.” Media, Culture, and Society, vol. 29, no. 5, Sep. 2007, pp. 812-30.
Rawson, K. J. Archiving Transgender: Affects, Logic, and the Power of Queer History. Syracuse U, 2010.
Rivard, Courtney. “Turning Archives into Data: Archival Rhetorics and Digital Literacy in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 70, no. 4, 2019, pp. 527-59.
Skjulstad, Synne and Andrew Morrison. “Movement in the Interface.” Computers and Composition, vol. 22, 2005, pp. 413-433.
Smith, Kevin. “Negotiating Community Literacy Practice: Public Memory Work and the Boston Marathon Bombing Digital Archive.” Computers and Composition, vol. 40, 2016, pp. 115-30.
Weick, Karl. Making Sense of the Organization. Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.