In which a novice evaluates digital work

After spending a good forty minutes browsing the Valley of the Shadow digital archive, I must admit that I’m defeated by the prompt Jeremy gave us last week for these blog posts. I simply could not find anything about the archive I would care to change. I approached it aggressively, determined to be disappointed or confused, or perhaps annoyed by the difficulty of navigating the project, but each time I thought “aha! that’s it!” a page scroll or more careful reading revealed the solution to my imaginary problem. In lieu, therefore, of explaining what about the archive I think could be changed to improve the user’s experience, I want to point out very briefly how the folks at the Valley of the Shadow impressed the pants off me. Firstly, the archive is prefaced with an excellent description of its raison d’être. Upon entering, a blueprint of sorts (oooh!) describes very succinctly and logically (in my humble opinion) how the information in the archive is organized. I dove in right away, and discovered through experimentation how to navigate the archive. Those who prefer a less visual or more guided navigational experience, however, can consult the “walking tours” for each of the topic sections. My favorite discovery, though, was the “Using the Valley Project” section, which contains examples of how previous visitors have put the material to use in various (and very different) ways. At no point did I feel confused, disappointed, or annoyed. I just felt eager to continue exploring the American Civil War as witnessed by Augusta (VA) and Franklin (PA) counties.

I also looked closely at the September 11 Digital Archive, which is an incredibly enormous collection of digital items relevant in some way to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America. Selecting “Browse” from the menu on the main page takes the user to a list of links which fall under the categories Stories, Email, Documents, Images, Digital Animations, Interviews, and Audio/Video, and clicking on any link will take the user to a group of related documents… or that’s the idea: the documents should be related, somehow. I suppose that the question I would pose to the curators of this project would be: what is the archive supposed to do? Is it merely meant as a permanent storage site for digital items that are in some way associated with September 11, 2001? And here are some emails? And here are some comment cards, and here some animated political cartoons? I suppose I would recommend that the archive might be more useful and navigable were it presented with more thematic nuance: as is, items are grouped into large categories that do not really encourage the exploration of the rest of the site. With the Valley Project on my mind, I couldn’t help but feel that a chronological approach (with separate sections for items connected to the country before, during and after the attacks) might be one very effective method of organization for these materials. Unfortunately, I was unable to login to the “researcher” account I tried to register, because I wanted to check out the “enhanced access to the entire public and researcher-only collections, including personal notes and favorites storage” which comes with such an account. I imagine being able to mark or store items inside your personal account might help one work through the collection more easily, though I stand by the assertion that the archive could do with a more carefully thought-out method of organization.

Sarah is a 2011-12 Praxis Fellow, former NINES Fellow, and a PhD candidate in the Department of English.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Archives