Taking what we have discussed in class, and ruminating on elements which, a general user might consider, I approached this critique in a slightly colloquial and personal way. And though there are several elements to consider, it is important to keep in mind the framing and context for which these interfaces are being considered. Steven Johnson’s conjectures about interfaces speak about the way they serve as doorways between worlds, specifically between the world of the user and the world of the site. There is a layering component to the interactivity that goes on, and this layering can be as concrete as the type of hardware being used, and as conceptual as the time it takes for a webpage to load. Johnson says, “the interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties, making one sensible to the other.”
This reminded me strongly of Saussure and his philosophy of Semiotics, where a “signifier” is a material thing that represents something, like words on a page, or an image. The “signified” is the concept to which the signifier is referring. Together, the two make up a “sign,” something that we use to communicate an idea. For example, if one reads the word “tree,” then the image of a tree is what the individual would picture in their mind. Signs are generally arbitrary, meaning they are specific to a particular convention or culture. This could not be more true not only in relation to Johnson, but for library finding aids specifically. Finding Aids are the guide for which users use in order to navigate library (archival) material.
For my critique, I chose to examine Princeton University’s Library Finding Aid, which won the Frederic M. Miller Finding Aid Award in 2012. To test it, I began with frivolous, fun searches like “Harry Potter” to see the kind of results that would be generated. My search for Potter was rather rewarding, as it came back with a link that would allow one to to request access to an audio-cassette of a commencement speech where it (Harry Potter) was mentioned. It showed where this tape was located and in which portion of the library I might find it in. This alone demonstrated the specificity of the finding aid, and how much metadata there must be in order for it to retrieve this information. I thought this would be a good way to start as it is an unbiased topic, something random which the library may or may not have had anything related to.
After browsing over the Style Manual for Archival Finding Aids from Carnegie Mellon University again, it seemed that Princeton’s finding aid followed their suggestions about formatting and visuality. They describe the typical layout of a finding aid, beginning with minute details, such as the style for the ‘results’ page. The elements which they talk about seemed quite prevalent when I first arrived at the Princeton’s finding aid, it felt inviting, clean, and professional. As an Ivy League university, one would assume that the appearance would be straightforward and simple, given that is meant to be used by students and professors. The reason I chose this finding aid was because of its clean layout and simple design. Nothing was noisy or overbearing, and I felt that this was an appropriate and professional looking theme. The front page of the site uses a plain, paper looking color as the background, with a slight texture to make it seemed as though it is raised. A picture taken from the front edifice of the university library serves as the header. Circling back to Johnson, interaction between user and interface is dependent upon several factors, and layout and appearance definitely influence that experience.
Another way I thought to test the finding aid’s abilities would be to see the kind of information that would be returned in a search where the university should have special ownership of that material. Put simply, to search for a subject or category that Princeton should be in possession of those materials. We discussed in class that museum exhibitions are at times developed with the interest of the donor (of the materials) as the focus. I thought perhaps that this could be true also of libraries, the type of access to collections which they would be allowed. I postulated that the university’s library would have worthwhile information for alumni who have graduated. And to make the critique more realistic, I thought searching for a famous alum would be a substantiated test, one that garner more results. Enter Jimmy Stewart. Stewart enrolled in the university in 1928, excelling in architecture, and wrote an impressive thesis on airport design. Impressed with his work, his professors awarded him with a scholarship for graduate studies. However, it was not long before he was sway by the university’s drama and music clubs, including the Princeton Triangle Club. I used Stewart as another neat way of of testing the finding aid, but also with the consideration that, as past graduate of the university, perhaps Princeton would have some special materials related to the classic star.
The finding aid also allows you to search by language or focus subject, and refine the search in a way that could lead to departments not only within the library, but in the university. On the left hand side, the finding aid displayed various subcategories for the user to use in order to refine their endeavor. Depending on the search, the results could be looked for in a different language, format, or collection. Upon clicking on a result to view its location, it would not only give the library, but the box and call number if necessary. Related materials were made visible on the left hand side, and that content would then be broken down by type, year it was published or grouped along with a hunt about the subject matter. When I tried looking for actual books to see how the call numbers were arranged, it seemed that they were un-clickable, stagnant links. They were also colored gray which made them somewhat difficult to see against the background of the page, and even though they were listed adjacent to the title, it made the page slightly more difficult to navigate quickly. True to any finding aid, many of the pages were very text heavy. And though the coloring and fonts were well selected, there was still difficulty reading and absorbing everything easily. For comparison’s sake, I looked at another university’s finding aid just to see if they had done any better. I looked at Columbia University, and found that they too used the university’s colors like Princeton did, but the blending of the two was too drastic, and the font sizing was too small to be comfortably legible. Though Princeton’s did strain the eyes after some time, it was more engaging and easily read initially.
There were also certain forums that were built for student response and feedback. It was very surprising to see share buttons for Facebook and Twitter, given that it is a prestigious institution. This makes sense however, seeing as it is a student population, and these are the easiest and frequently used forms of commenting and posting. Also, it is not forcing the students to be limited to their university identities, they can interact with one another more easily and even give the university some attention if they post a link on their personal page. It also helps promotes interactivity and institutional community. There was also a WordPress login as a tool that could be used for response. WordPress is used non professionally and professionally, so this was also a wise addition to the networks enabled for sharing. As far as “seams,” I did not find many, which would be expected for a university of this stature and reputation. I believe I ran into one error page, where there was some link rot.
Overall, for a university library finding aid, I found it to be useful, specific, and moderately easy to use. Detailed for sure.