Recently, I was presented with a challenge by a tech librarian. He asked me if I could think of any examples of special collections websites with appealing, user-friendly finding aids in EAD. One comment made: “Archives seem to be the only places still doing a long narrative, like a printed document, on the web.”
My first response was to mention the Online Archive of California, but after that, I realized that my knowledge of visually appealing finding aid design and special collections websites was very limited.
The OAC is one of the first archival initiatives of its kind, because it attempts to digitally collocate archival resources in the state of California. Finding aids here are not only easily discovered through each repository’s website, but also through Google, ArchiveGrid, and OCLC (including OAIster when appropriate). Of course, the appealing interface doesn’t hurt the possibility of user discovery. The finding aids (here’s an example) have more visual interest through use of color blocks and links on the right side, as well as a sans-serif font. Perhaps the best part about a statewide interface? Consistency in design and usability.
The purpose of the site, however, is clear: to search finding aids (also referred to as collection guides). Digital content is tied to relevant collections with a small eyeball icon. Users can browse from A-Z and view brief collection descriptions. Overall the site has a clean interface with a simple purpose. The OAC’s collections are tied to the UC system’s Calisphere, which is a public- and educator-focused search site for over 150,000 digital objects (it also includes teacher modules for K-12). Both of these projects are powered by the California Digital Library.
Because my colleague was interested in EAD finding aids, I decided to start with SAA’s EAD Roundtable website. The site includes a list of early adopters of EAD, so I took a look at how creative some institutions were with representing their finding aids online.
My favorites so far?
Emory’s Manuscripts and Rare Books Library has a great search and browse interface. From the main page, users are informed that they can browse, search, and also search the catalog for resources. The database includes unprocessed collections, which is a pleasant surprise in the era of “hidden collections”. The finding aids themselves are visually interesting, with linked content, as well as icons for the PDF and printable versions (see the James D. Waddell papers for example).
Columbia University’s Archival Collections Portal searches both finding aids and digital content. I think this type of searching is natural for users, making it easier for users to access resources. The finding aids appear to be in a variety of formats depending on the collection, including HTML and PDF, but each record in the portal includes a descriptive summary and subject terms.
Both of these go against the typical left-side menu browsing of many EAD finding aids. I started to realize with my preferences that EAD was less important than the overall visual appeal and ease of use of the finding aid itself. If we can do a full-text search of any text document, why are we doing complex EAD encoding? Why aren’t we just doing HTML? How about catablogs? The idea is that, like MARC, having standards can help researchers find similar resources.
I’m at the beginning of understanding the many reasons to use EAD, but already I find myself questioning it. Jeanne over at Spellbound Blog talked about the possibilities of simpler EAD finding aids in 2008, through the Utah State Historical Society’s next-generation version of the Susa papers. There’s the Jon Cohen AIDS Research Collection, which is a finding aid and digital collection. Then there is the famous Polar Bear Expedition collection of next-generation finding aids.
There seems to be a lot of overlap between finding aids and digital objects, which I’ve seen at Duke and Eastern Carolina University, among others. Then there’s the movement to push our resources onto Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, etc. If repositories host their own finding aids and digital objects, they can repurpose and collocate them anywhere on the web, right?
I still don’t know if I have a good answer for my colleague. I know I have much to learn. I am curious to know…what’s is your favorite EAD finding aid site? The most beautiful finding aid site?