Monday, 23 March 2009

Digitising Medieval Manuscripts - usability and design - stop making frogs!

Captain Grumpy goes for a stroll
Big bad grumpy Monday here. Normally I am the "most generous of web reviewers" In fact in 14 years of web critique/reviewing I have rarely [although it has happened] got really annoyed with the results of a web project. It always felt more important to encourage - cajole - support - plead for another round, etc. But somehow these guys got through the firewall, because they exampled something that has been troubling me for way too long.

Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts UCLA
My poor hapless victim comes from the Scout Report on Saturday. I got all excited when I read the blurb. The CMRS , Center for Medieval Renaissance Studies at UCLA, had created a database of over 100o digitised medieval manuscripts from nearly 100 significant college, national and insititutional library collections, and "a real boon to historians, art historians, and those with a penchant for such documents' That's for me I thought! And so off I went

Great Resources
The reality was, to be frank, a major disappointment. Don't misunderstand - the resources which the site has uncovered and indexed are brilliant. Moreover, they have definitely done us all a service by bringing them together into a database and then annotating them. I also like the multiple search pathways - region - type , et al. They also have the imprimatur of UCLA - so no fly by nights here

Over kissing frogs
So what went wrong? In two words - usability and design. As I say, normally I would not go on about them - but call it Monday - truth in sentencing - whatever - but I am so over kissing frogs - i.e. thinking I am going somewhere really interesting and then discovering that no matter how good the resource - the usability or design is just so bad, you just want to curl up in a ball and ask when is it ever going to end.

Hundreds of others?
It also feels unfair to pick on UCLA and this project. After all there are hundreds, if not the odd thousand, of library interfaces on the web which act just like theirs - i.e. a simple search page which ticks the discovery box, but with no context, and almost no sense of style or strategic purpose around leveraging the beauty of the objects in the collection, or the level of care and skill that the staff and the institution put towards their preservation and management.

And I'm over it, especially for a site which showcases medieval manuscripts, the most drop dead gorgeous examples of design, style and usability of their age, or any other for that matter.

Thicket of search thorns
The problem is both replicated and in some cases compounded when you go off to the sites and encounter the projects and manuscripts that underpin the database.

Once again the works themselves are surrounded by a thicket of search thorns, and then when you get through them, you are almost always presented with a design and presentation grid which actively undermines the sheer innovative genius of the original work.

As for usability, and intelligent intuitive site architecture - well let's be charitable and say they forgot.

I don't want to pull out any examples here - there are just too many from among the 73 institutions that are part of the collection. And I am just not that hard hearted.

Have a look for yourself - by searching around here - let me know - push back - maybe this is okay - maybe the "real people who use this" don't want/need any thing else?

Doesn't great medieval design deserves great web design?
For me it's simple - as well as being critical centers of knowledge dissemination, the best of the medieval scriptoria were the great design studios of their day, and the institutions which are digitising these treasures for greater web access are to be commended in bringing this legacy to human creativity onto the web, especially given the expense that some of these projects can rack up.

But isn't that point - if we are going to spend substantial amounts digitising these treasures - isn't it just as important to give them the same standard of excellence in terms of site design and presentation as the originals authors, patrons and subsequent caretakers gave, and continue to give to to the works themselves?

Isn't it time to stop making frogs!


Anonymous said...

Yes, it is a plain vanilla catalogue, as most are, with just links to the gorgeous documents all over the world. There's great metadata but often design etc comes down to money. we digitised the NZ Chinese journals - good design and context (cost a bit) vs our digital version of the medieval manuscript of the Rossdhu Book of Hours which has some written context but sits in a DBTextworks database & is difficult to search (how do you search mss not in English?) and browse but which didn't cost a lot.


Paul Reynolds said...

Actually, I think the Chinese Journals project is a very honorable exception.
I even blogged about it to say that

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