Metadata over Content – How to Build an Unusable Archive

I like to troll for new academic sites in my various lists, especially the Internet Scout Project, but I find that a large percentage of online archival repositories are so unusable I’ve stopped adding them to my own links library. They are just more trouble to use than they’re worth … which is sad because I’m bypassing great information on civil rights, diversity, Pennsylvania history and more. And I bet most people who aren’t professional archivists/scholars are too.

There are a lot of symptoms of an unusable archive (I’ll get to those), but I think the main problem is that the content experts are so focused on “metadata” that they’ve forgotten the context. The result is that you pretty much already have to know what exactly to look for before you can find anything. And by exact I mean keywords like “Jackson, Andrew — 1767-1845 — Innauguration, 1828” – got that?

The Quest for Ladybird Johnson

So to clarify my angst, let me pick on a site which has some great resources, but isn’t quite so user friendly – the Library of Congress Portraits of Presidents and First Ladies, 1780 – Present. First, let me say that my inner instructional designer salivates because I am fairly confident that somewhere in here is a public domain photograph of President Bush 43 in here somewhere. How many bloggers need a legal image of President Bush? Or President Clinton? Or maybe a student would like a picture of Abraham Lincoln? I do believe this is our tax dollars at work.

Since I’m not a professional historian, I’m really hoping there’s a list of Presidents in chronological order (or maybe a second alphabetical order, just in case). Then I can find my target and download my image. So let’s try the Browse link.

As you can see I do not get a list of presidents, but a list of all keywords (president, location, event, etc) in alphabetical order. A lazy searcher (the vast majority of us) will stop here. A more persistent searcher will notice that keywords include things like “Adams, Abigail” – meaning that if I target the approximate location of the presidential family name, I may get a hit.

So I will actually look for Ladybird Johnson, which looks to be in the “Grant…” to “Photographic…” range. Fortunately there is one entry for “Johnson, Ladybird.”

And finally, I get my photo (very striking if I may say so), along with lots of supporting metadata, like the date (interesting), call number (will I be going to DC anytime soon?), the medium (a photographic print – duh) and digital ID (I may actually need this if I lose the URL), and, best of all, alternate subject headers (if I found it, do I need these now?).

What I don’t find is any information on what Lady Bird did, what her husband did, when she lived or died, when she lived in the White House or even a link to any sites a historical society might maintain. I can infer that her husband was Lyndon Baines Johnson, because she is “Mrs. Lyndon Baines Johnson”, but not all readers are good “inferers.”

I’m sure this information is useful to the LOC staff, but I’m not sure about the rest of us. They do say that the Reproduction Number can be used to order high quality prints, but this is really not clear on the page as is.

Spelling Out the Steps to Unusablity

I’m picking on the Library of Congress, but it really is a common problem. I cannot tell you how many sites:

  • Classify holdings by media type (do you want an manuscript, illustration, photograph, video or audio?)
  • Give a catalog number, the original archive source or alternate keywords, but only minimally describe what the “artifact” is or how it fits into the larger historical narrative.
  • A seriously hardcore archive site will scan the original, but hide/skip a text transcript. You don’t have to be be relying on a screen reader to realize that reading a PDF version of a mid-19th century print (with red marks) is not the way to process content on the Web.
  • And the most hard core of all – the one with just the search box. Because I already know which piece of 19th century tobacco advertisement I am targeting.

Honestly, if I need a free photo, a lot these sites might be very useful. But I feel like I’m missing so much more in all that metadata.

I should add that if you really want to make an educational archive especially unusable, you’ll have to add these steps

  • Call the list of external links “Resources” (it’s more academic that way)
  • Classify artifacts with abstract scholarly categories like “Discover” vs. “Learn” (not of all this can be bad translation issues).
  • Mention all sources of funding on the front page (that’s why they give out the big bucks), but skip the table of contents, integrated tutorials or anything that a non-professional could use.

I think I’ll be visiting Wikipedia now. They might have a free photo I can use as well.

Sites that Do Work

You can build archives/educational sites for non-scholars. They key is to use comprehensible search terms and put information into more context. Some of my favorite archives.

I live in hope that I may learn some of these lessons myself.

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