SAA Session Review – Exploring the User Experience with Digital Primary Sources

One of the panels I attended at SAA this year was titled “Exploring the User Experience with Digital Primary Sources,” which covered a wide range of topics, starting with understanding a repository’s user community, assessing that community’s needs and behavior, and discovering new opportunities for archives and archivists to engage in research and scholarly production.

The first presenter, Sherri Berger from the California Digital Library (CDL), spoke about her work assessing the user communities for the Online Archive of California (OAC) and Calisphere, two projects of the CDL. She did this through implementing a simple pop-up survey that was presented to a small percentage of their online users. After gathering this data, they were able to better determine who was actually using their systems (in the case of the OAC, it turns out that a significant portion of their user base consists of archivists) and then address upcoming redesigns specifically to those users’ needs.

The next two speakers addressed user-focused design and redesign processes. Rachel Hu, who also works for CDL, talked about the process of designing an interface for presenting digital objects. She used a number of different methods and tools to engage users in the design from process from a very early stage. I was especially interested to hear about the techniques she used before even attempting to create a visual representation of the design: categorizing and prioritizing functional requirements, card sorts, virtual interviews and collaborative design exercises. In contrast to the very broad approach described by Hu, Jody DeRidder of the University of Alabama discussed a more focused way of gathering user input through one-on-one interviews with advanced users. In this case, advanced users were defined as full professors or subject specialists. Although I don’t think any of their findings were particularly germane to the RAC, this technique is one that we have successfully used in the past and will almost certainly continue to use in the future.

Closing out the panel, Donghee Sinn (University at Albany) and Roger Schonfeld (Ithaka S+R) talked about ways in which archivists can engage with historians and other scholars in research using digital primary sources. Sinn’s presentation focused on the use of web analytics to track historians’ use of digital archival collections, examining their search and discovery paths. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she discovered that most scholars’ search strategies for digital materials match their search strategies for analog materials. Schonfeld presented highlights of a recent Ithaka S+R report on changes in research methods and practices, as well as ways that archives can support those changes. He pointed to Google and Google Books as some of the primary forces behind this change, primarily because the power of a full-text keyword search has revolutionized the possibilities of scholarship as well as the way in which it is produced. Interestingly, this increased power and access to texts is not necessarily producing a sense of glee for historians, but rather a sense of anxiety. Archivists, with their subject knowledge, can be incredibly helpful to scholars in sorting through this glut of information and making sense of it all. He also pointed out that, with the increased use of digital cameras, our reading rooms are becoming very different kinds of places. Less analysis is being conducted in the confines of our reading rooms, and more ad-hoc digitization of collections is happening. Although he didn’t really provide any answers, Schonfeld ended his presentation with a number of very compelling questions: how can we as archives and archivists support these kind of changes? What will be our role going forward as the nature of scholarship changes? How will our current staffing, space and information management need to be adjusted for the future?

In general, I thought this was a really excellent panel. I was most interested in Rachel Hu and Jody DeRidder’s presentations, since they matched the kind of work that I do. I expect to be trying out many of the approaches they detailed here at the RAC, so stay tuned for some fun design exercises!

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