Lost in search

I’ve spent the last week thinking and navigating Archivo Memorias de la Patagonia Austral (AMPA), an Argentinian digital humanities website. Probably because of my professional inclination, I’ll read everything my eyes—and their best friend, my glasses—can catch. When I typed on my browser http://www.koluel.org my sight immediately started scanning titles, words in bold and italic, and deciding where to start reading. I guess because academic writing is what I read the most, my experience of the website started by reading what seems to be its introduction. Although I could link you to those sentences, [1] the AMPA’s description of itself is important, which I would translate to:

Archivo Memorias de la Patagonia Austral is a “project that organizes documents through its digitization and managing, providing public access to them. The archive contains twentieth century documents of Patagonia’s different places as a way to make them accessible to scholars, educational system, and community in general. The archive has been a collaborative effort of museums and municipal archives.”[2]

Throughout these lines, there are a few things that immediately catch my eye. Let’s dive into a couple of them. AMPA’s identity seems to me undefined and unclear: I still don’t know if AMPA is organizing and digitizing collections that were already put together at the different organizations that collaborate, or if they are creating new collections by selecting materials and documents owned by those organizations. I guess part of my confusion is because they introduce themselves first as a project and then as an archive. We have been discussing those concepts in our DPH class and the different meanings they have for different people. For example, Price describes the digital archive as a “purposeful collection of surrogates,”[3] something with which Theimer would disagree.  Beyond the lack of consensus on what those words mean or should mean in a digital context, there is a lack of clarity when it comes to this website’s mission.

Not only the website mission is unclear, but also its searchability, its information display, and its categories. I’ll analyze some of those themes through the following lines as well as suggest some ideas that might resolve some aspects of the website’s lack of clarity.

Along with that lack of clarity, I found myself confused when trying to navigate the website and make sense of its contents. For example, there are a few different ways in which you can access information: by directly searching through tags, through typing, though location, or by browsing—which you can just access from the home page. And I am using quotation marks because it is a pretty guided kind of exploration, where you are given a few alternatives, one of each of AMPA’s categories: Elementos (items), Colecciones (collections), and Exhibiciones (exhibitions).

For instance, I clicked on the newest incorporated item which is titled “Rovillard, Antonio”—a man’s name. The weird thing is that the item—as you can see in the picture below—despite having a person’s name—is a picture of a house.

Last item added at AMPA: “Rovillard, Antonio” item.

It is also confusing that under the “Rovillard, Antonio” item there are at least 30 different and very diverse other items, some of which are pictures scanned together—more than one per page—as a PDF. Even though every PDF page has a little caption, I can just imagine how frustrated I would get if I were trying to use this as a resource for research. As I suspected that finding these hidden and poorly cataloged items would be hard, I ran some tests by trying to find one specific picture I liked through other methods. None of my searches got me to it. The closest I got was to the “Rovillard, Antonio” item, which seems to be the only way to access to these other documents.

“Rovillard, Antonio” item’s documents

Thinking in AMPA’s interface terms—into which I’ll dive later—I guess a more accessible way for “Rovillard, Antonio” would be by making it a collection or an exhibition, not an item. In that way, each of the multiple pictures in PDF pages could be an item by themselves, making its the search for them easier and its display more appealing. As it seems that the connection between these items is important, they could have tags that relate them to each other.

The tons of metadata shared through each of the items are also a problematic characteristic of AMPA. Metadata is supposed to help us understand the context of the item itself, but it just makes it harder and boring—even for me: who, as you may remember, reads everything. Indeed, having for example a whole description/biography of Antonio Rovillard as part of the items’ metadata doesn’t help much. There is also an inconsistent use of Spanish and English on the metadata that makes it look a little wordy and probably difficult to understand for who don’t have a familiarity with the language.

"Rovillard, Antonio" item's metadata
“Rovillard, Antonio” item’s metadata

I guess that at this point we can agree that finding information in AMPA is confusing and that this confusion makes the website hard to use. As they mention in their introduction, the website’s intended audience are scholars and the general public. How are they supposed to achieve their mission of facilitating the public access of this material if it is extremely hard to locate particular material? A good thing that the website does have, is how easy it is to save and/or print the documents that were uploaded as items and not as archives—as happens in the case of the PDF-pictures. Regardless of how hard it is for me to navigate this website, I think that something that would work really well for it and its public is allowing the creation of personal collections, as the MET Museum has in its online project “One MET. Many worlds” visitors’ gallery.

Before going any further, let’s recap: I click on a man’s name but I’m seeing the picture of a house. I click anyways but I just find tons of metadata. As I am curious I scroll down even when I wasn’t getting getting what I was supposed to, and I find a bunch of other documents, mostly scanned pictures on a PDF page.

It is not hard to notice that AMPA’s collection is built on Omeka: its interface gives it away. As you may know, Omeka is a pretty popular web-publisher platform used by museums, archives, cultural organizations, and, among others, digital humanities projects. It offers a free subscription that allows the creation of collection and exhibits though the uploading of a diverse selection of formats. With the free subscription you will get the basic interface and limited space storage. With a paid subscription you will get more space and the possibility of installing different plugins on your website. If you happen to know about web programming, you can actually customize your site. Although I don’t know for sure, because of how it interface look, it seems that AMPA has the basic Omeka interface and no web design or web programming presence on its team.

AMPA is using some of Omeka’s predetermined categories: items, collections, and exhibitions. These pre-determined categories direct the understanding by which we, the users, interact with the website. The experience(s) we can have while navigating projects like this one are mediated by the way in which the information is given—or not. Users respond to and interact with interfaces through, mainly, already prescribed channels. In this sense, how much can be done by a user of AMPA? In what ways are the categories already mentioned determining and imposing a unique view of the content here displayed?[4]

AMPA has constructed its users’ activity into near-passivity. The website content can mainly just be used as it was intended, which share some of Emerson’s ideas about current popular interface—being Apple’s iPad is his best example. Despite that AMPA is not giving any illusion of creativity, as Emerson argues that the Apple does, you are sort of playing but a limited set of possibilities and your movements are restricted. You can search by its rules, and that doesn’t assure you success—as I experienced with “Rovillard, Antonio” item. You can download and print some of its items; the others are in formats that make it hard.

On the border of being restrictive about the website uses and being clear about its expectations about its users, they offer a description of each of the categories they use that work as some sort of guidelines on how to use the site. They describe Elementos as different items organized by title, author or creation date, Colecciones as groups of items about a particular theme, and Exposiciones as written interpretations based on items. Even though AMPA is being straightforward of these definitions, it is important to remember that in “Rovillard, Antonio” case, not even they used them as intended.

There are invisible choices that are really hard to understand. For example, one of AMPA’s collections contains just a one-page item. If we are responding to their own categories, wouldn’t that work better just as an item? Are there any explanations behind this curatorial decision or is it just an unfortunate mistake?

One of AMPA's collections containing just one item.
One of AMPA’s collections containing just one item.

I might have been tough on AMPA but it is just because it does have great potential, and I would like for it to explode it. Beyond its current problems in terms of searchability and interface, Archivo Memorias de la Patagonia Austral could make a great impact, as it is working towards exalt the historic and cultural value that its documents have. It’s dedicating all its effort on putting together a project/archive for a really remote area that is probably underrepresented in all the national archives of the country. In this sense, it is working towards making visible collections that probably won’t ever be part of “big” archive. It is democratizing the web by being an active writer of its own history and by preserving its own memory. Something like “from Patagonia to Patagonia.”

I keep thinking about what this website would look like if some of the things that we have been discussing during the last month were taken into account. What if the generosity principles of digital collections were applied here? What would this site look like? Would the documents be better understood? And also, what a crowd-source approach would look like?[5] What would it mean for the website’s interface and the structure? What would it mean for its unclear self-presentation? I guess these questions might be taking the website to a path completely different from its current one, but if you ask me, the way it is now is making really difficult to access it (and please, read access as if it were in bold all caps).




[1] Although links are extremely useful—we all used them all the time—there are, in part, though as a democratic tool that allows the reader to go as deeper as she/he wants to go.

[2] Archivo Memorias De La Patagonia. Web. 7 Mar. 2016. <http://www.koluel.org/>.

[3] Price, Kenneth, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” at Digital Humanities Quarterly. Web. 7 Mar. 2016 <http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000053/000053.html#p14>.

[4] I have to say that I have mixed feeling about what it means to have a popular, free, and easy to use content management platform. It’s a really good resource for those who cannot afford building a digital archive/collection/project/exhibit from scratch—at least for those who make good use of it—but it also sets a structure, a pattern for those DH endeavors, legitimating and popularizing just one way to do things, and there by, limiting the results.

[5] Even though they do accept contributions, this is not a crowd-sourced project.