Digital libraries: a noob’s thoughts

As a new grad student, I’m getting back into the swing of the academic research process. My first writing assignment involves interviewing a professional in the field of library and information science and writing an essay about my findings. My writing and editing background tells me to do more research: Don’t rely solely on one source. Also, make it interesting–find the hook.

Because I have no hook yet, I’m taking this opportunity to write up some informal thoughts and questions.

First, one example of a digital collection brought up in the interview was the editorial cartoons of J. N. “Ding” Darling. Darling began publishing political cartoons at the turn of the 20th century for the Sioux City Journal in Sioux City, Iowa. I didn’t have a direct link path to find the cartoons in the Iowa Digital Library (IDL) at first so I decided to google his name. The results brought up both the digital collection IDL houses as well as the collection stored by the Cowles Library Collection at Drake University. Although the differences among each library’s choices of URI and director naming are slight, the designs of the entry portals for each library are strikingly different.

The IDL’s design chooses one cartoon–a self-portrait–to serve as the users’ first encounter of the collection. After that visual entry point, the main navigation to the right is the second focus, while the descriptive text to the left of the self-portrait was the last to gain my attention. A collage of the cartoonist’s work forms the background of the title banner, and while an interesting design choice, it makes the title of the collection strenuous to make out.

The Cowles Library’s design displays four cropped cartoons to represent the four decades the collection spans, which change when the mouse rolls over them. The title of the collection commands a lot of attention at the top, having no background image. Both libraries’ title fonts conjure an earlier era: IDL’s in the courier family, a vintage font in modern design; Cowles’s is harder for a novice to identify, but is similar to Colwell orĀ OldStyle.

I’m highlighting these design aspects because I had to make a choice among Google’s results. Of course my purpose was library-specific, and I was professionally interested in finding and looking through IDL’s collection. But what if I were detached from a location-based user community and simply searching for a homework assignment or for some other informational purpose? The Cowles Library’s design would have earned more than two seconds’ worth of my attention because of the “feel” of the design. IDL’s design is well organized and gives me a lot of navigation options right up front, and if I were to spend more than two seconds on the site, the collection would appear way more information and multimedia-rich, with excellent metadata. Cowles’s seems to give the user what it promised: the cartoons by year, with various sorting options and little else.

From the interview, I did not get the impression that IDL was competition-driven or cared about anything like search engine optimization. But I also didn’t ask. Had I compared the designs of these collections ahead of time, I totally would have. My interviewee came to her position from a newspaper background, and I’m sure the competition element is not a foreign idea to her. What choices did IDL have when designing the Ding Darling collection and what went into their decisions? Taking the longview on this issue, when one is the caretaker of a digital library, what programming safeguards can be put in place to make revamping outdated web design feasible? I have been in the position of planning the re-organization and redesign of web content on a small scale, and can’t imagine what the task becomes when the collection spans tens or hundreds of thousands of items.

So yeah, how important is interface design to the life of a digital library? I will definitely be looking into this more.

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