I chose to critique Melville’s Marginalia Online. I chose this online exhibition because of its interesting use of archival materials and the way the site allows the user to interact with originally analog objects in a digital space. This site’s primary function is to provide access to Herman Melville’s personal book collection, where 25 out of 800 surviving books are digitized and accessible online. I focused on the site’s navigation, aesthetics, and the way in which it engages its materials.
The composition/structure of the home page is pretty self-explanatory, you know where to “enter” the site, a hint is given by the word browse on the left-hand side of the page. Although the reds, browns, and grays are stark, the user is aware that they will be exploring Melville’s marginalia, due to the photo of Melville superimposed over his books. The categories on the left-hand side of the home page brighten when hovering the mouse over them, making them obviously clickable and accessible.
One of the biggest critiques I have of this interface as a whole is that each page seems overwhelmed with information. For example, let us take the “Browse Volumes” section. This section has many things going on at once which gives the space a visual hierarchy. You see: the virtual bookshelf’s skueomorphic design, the websites branding/menu options, the twitter stream, and finally the Boise State University Branding. Although this visual hierarchy is helpful for locating Melville’s bookshelf, the other aspects of the page get lost. However, this sort of layout makes it clear that there are many routes to take while exploring the site.
The most noticeable feature on this page is a skeuomorphic design displaying the spines of each digitized book. This design element is not necessarily “useful,” however, many users may want to look at the “real” spines of Melville’s books, which gives this specific design choice material appeal. Although the images of the spines themselves have aesthetic appeal, the way the books are organized is confusing. The entire alphabet appears on the top of page, but only 11 letters are highlighted in white: this archive only has books digitized by authors whose names begin with these letters. This type of organization is distracting and unnecessary. It would only make sense to organize the books alphabetically if MM had more digitized books to include. Therefore, this organizational structure is unsuccessful, as it makes it obvious that they are missing many, many books.
There are three ways to access Melville’s Marginalia. The first is on the home page at the bottom right. Every couple of seconds a random inscribed page flashes on the screen. A user can click on it in order to get users directly into the digitized copies of Melville’s library without any arduous searching. This is a very smart choice because it allows users to jump right into the content.
The second way to access Melville’s marginalia is through the previously mentioned “Browse Volumes” section. After clicking upon the spine of a book, the metadata pops up which allows the user to “dig deeper.” However, this covers up the navigational tools needed to access the inside of the book. This structure is not intuitive because you cannot just click on the spine and you are inside the book, instead you need to close out the metadata box, then click on one of the three options the left hand side of the page, which read : display all, marked and inscribed, and inscribed.
After clicking one of these three options and a page number, the user can see the scanned page of the book itself, while also seeing a transcriptions of what is handwritten on the page. The inscriptions are an effective component to the interface because it is very hard to read some of the erased words had written or erased, and by including the transcriptions Melville’s Marginalia has made it easily accessible for users to read. This specific section of Melville’s Marginalia is interactive by allowing the user to engage with the material in what ever order they please. However, one thing that detracts from the overall setup of the page navigation is that all of the pages are underlined, which again crowds the space, making it visually unappealing.
The second way to navigate through the book is much less intuitive. In the center above the scanned text there is a drop down box with page numbers, then the terms: image, volume, marginalia, mirrored at either side. When a user clicks on the Marginalia tab it takes you over to the left hand side of the page, to what seems to be a random page. This second option does not provide easier access, instead it crowds the page and has the potential to confuse the user. Unfortunately, whenever you click on a book to look in it, it pops out in another tab, so on one hand you can easily toggle between books, but you may end up with 20 tabs open.
The third way to access Melville’s Marginalia is through the “Online Catalog.” Once a user clicks on “Online Catalog” the page enters a space where you can search for books in Melville’s personal library. There is a search box where a user can search by keyword, which is standard, but it also gives many different drop down boxes. In the drop down boxes you can select from very specific criteria, for example, you can select “poems” “ fiction” and “essays” in three separate drop down boxes. Or, even more specifically, the library Melville borrowed a book from. At first glance it is extremely overwhelming aesthetically, though if you want to know what each search term means, there is a guide at the bottom of the page but it is very text heavy. Although many of Melville’s books are “accessible,” not many of them have been digitized, and are instead scattered around the world in special collections. Another issue with this sort of in depth search criteria, is that it seems the user needs to be “in the know” and done previous research to search with this criteria.
There are several aspects that make the website successful. For starters the metadata is very thorough. It tells you where book is located, if it is lost, who scanned it, how he acquired the book, call number, etc., which definitely gives user the option to dig deeper if they wanted to. The content is contextualized well: it gives the user everything needed about the book, while still allowing the user to read and interpret the inscriptions themselves. There are also options to share on social media platforms, which can provide access to user that may not have actively searched for such content. However, when a page is shared on social media platforms it does not lead to a specific page but instead the book itself, which could use improvement.
Overall, what we learn from Melville’s Marginalia is that context is important to the exhibit, yet too much data on the page can be distracting.