Beautiful finding aids

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?


7 Responses to “Beautiful finding aids”

  1. February 18, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I’m glad to have found this post. Ever since I started grad school I’ve been interested in how to make archival description more inviting and accessible, and inject creativity and beauty into it. I still hope to have more of a direct hand in this some day.

    In my current job we publish our EADs on the Rocky Mountain Online Archive:


    For an example of one of ours:

    The RMOA is maintained by someone else, so I have nothing to do directly with anything beyond the actual content. I won’t make any claims to “most beautiful”, but I do like their choice of background color . . .

  2. 2 Audra
    February 19, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks! I like the RMOA EAD example. It seems we archivists have a way to go to bring aesthetic attention to our finding aids! Love your blog, btw.

  3. April 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Excellent post! I really like that Polar Bear example as well as the Emory finding aids. Wish I’d have been able to take a course on creating these types of finding aids at the MLIS program at Rutgers. I’ll keep my eyes open for education opportunities on the topic. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Thanks!

  4. 4 G.
    May 11, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    Just make sure you make the fundamental separation between content and presentation. For content you will want structured data such as provided by EAD to “future-proof” your descriptive information. I would like to presume that there will always be tools to move into each new version of EAD or possibly other flavors of XML etc. For presentation, one is welcome to experiment away! Start with knowing standards-based HTML (using CSS for layout & other semantic concepts) and add XSLT to move the XML to it and you can have a great and beautiful static (or dynamic perhaps with a dash of javascript) finding aid online.

    When we recently changed our web site design, I took the opportunity to add some simple “reader tools” such as a quick link to the container list and a streamlined print stylesheet without adding scripts and other things that could be hard to maintain over time. We add on average a dozen new finding aids each month, so publication needs to be as painless as possible. We also submit the EAD to a regional consortium that created their own, slightly more interactive stylesheet. Both http://images.archives.utah.gov/u?/ead,462 and http://archives.utah.gov/research/inventories/19626.html came from the same EAD.

    I happen to see the Polar Bear experiment as unique among archival collections. They built upon an interested audience especially to tap into that 2.0 vibe. Most records description online will not need or want such level of interactivity and detail, and be fine with static text that is easily picked up by keyword web searches.

  5. 5 Audra
    May 12, 2010 at 11:49 am

    G.: I noticed that our “old” EAD were not “future-proofed” since they had style codes in them, but it looks like what AT exports is quite structured, leaving room for lots of creative presentation. Thanks for sharing those examples. I really like the second one, and appreciate that the administrative info in the finding aid is listed at the end. There is definitely a need for more user studies to help us discover what our users want to see and what makes it easier for them to find our collections. Is there a way to get a copy of your consortium’s stylesheet? Thanks!

  6. 6 Michelle
    December 1, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    Audra, love your blog. Also, love the finding aids at UNC-CH. (They are published as HTML but I’m fairly certain from EAD files). Really lovely.

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