Dr. Seuss Finding Aid

/ Team

Alba Edesa / Julian Gautier / Kip Holcomb / Simon Zou

/ Task

This project analyzed and critiqued the existing standard format for archival finding aids, and to propose a new interface design that will make online finding aids more effective resources and guides, and more effectively communicate the contents and significance of the collections they describe, for a wide variety of potential users.

/ Goals

  • Create a finding aid that is accessible, fun and easy to use for the collection’s likely users.
  • Encourage exploration.
  • Create a data visualization that is intuitive to navigate, takes advantage of the hierarchical data, and communicates visually how different items are related to each other categorically as well as communicate physical size and proximity.

/ Background

Finding aids are key tools for people who work with archives or special collections of many types of cultural materials, across all kinds of institutional and community settings. However, finding aids have not made a good transition to the online world. Most are still static documents that list items in a collection, and describe their sources and whatever key features of the items and the collection seem most relevant, depending on who is describing them, who owns or has custody of the collection, and who else might be interested in it. Although professional groups like the Society of American Archivists and others have set guidelines and standards for preparing finding aids, their formats are not always user-friendly for anyone except specialists. They are seldom designed to take advantage of the visual, hyperlinking, and tagging capacities, or the social connections and shared knowledge among people with interests in the materials or collections, supported by online information systems and media platforms.

/ Dr. Seuss Collection

The Dr. Seuss Collection housed at the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UC San Diego is comprised of approximately 8,500 items documenting a wide range of Seuss’s life and creative works beginning from his high school activities in 1919 to his death in 1991. The diverse collection ranges from drafts and artwork from his well-known children’s books to scripts, storyboards, production notes for screenplays, and many other works related to Dr. Seuss’ life. Due to the nature of this collection and its subject matter, this finding aid appeals to audiences outside of the traditional archival user base. While the existing online finding aid for the collection does provide some interesting features, the finding aid is essentially a lengthy, hierarchically structured text document.

/ Analysis

The Seuss Collection’s existing online finding aid does improve upon the standard online finding aid with a static navigation menu and collapsible sections to reduce cognitive load. It also lets users more efficiently request items from the finding aid page, and permits access to the finding aid’s underlying data and structure, usually in XML, thereby granting users some control. However, its design is still limited by many of the same weaknesses shared by other online finding aids. The increased standardization of collection description improves interoperability, so that finding aids can be displayed in ways that make sense in different systems. Some aids take advantage of the technological advances and web conventions users rely upon and have come to expect. Despite this, finding aids remain:

  • Difficult to learn: The standard finding aid does not align itself explicitly with any “real world” systems with which users are already familiar. It does not attempt to conform to the mental models of potential users. Instead it is designed with a model of the “intended user,” which all other users must learn.
  • Text heavy: As the web morphs into an increasingly visual medium, many types of users are reluctant to read so much text to orient themselves and navigate to material.
  • Static and uncontrollable: Finding aids are very hierarchical, and users should be able to personalize and impose their own order on the material.
  • Isolated: There is often no social component, no way for users to interact with each other, to benefit from each other’s opinions and discoveries.
  • Unhelpful: Many finding aids do not attempt to anticipate when users need help. As intuitive as the best designs are, it may be necessary, and is often helpful, to offer explanations.
  • Spatial relationship: It is difficult to get a sense of the size of each part of the collection, relative to the whole collection.


/ Process

Any discussion of the redesign of an online finding aid necessitates discussion of its potential users. In addition to personal narratives and demographic data, the personas include an evaluation of the users’ goals and motivations, as well as possible frustrations they might experience in their interactions with the finding aid. Two of our personas, a professor and a researcher, illustrate profiles of users that are most commonly imagined as visitors to an archive or users of a finding aid. The remaining two personas, a stay-at-home father and a graphic comic book artist, are representative of individuals less often imagined as potential users. Reaching a broader audience and encouraging engagement with non-academics and members of the local community are often important goals for any archive.

Product Metaphor

/ Process

Human computer interaction and user experience design have always relied on analogies and metaphors to bring attention to technology’s features and affordances. Metaphors are often used as a tool or method in the design process to help identify, frame and solve problems. Metaphors can be useful for breaking away from the limitations imposed by problem constraints, justifying design decisions, and creating an intuitive language within a design team to perceive design objectives from alternative angles. Using a metaphor in the end-product is a means to render the values and meanings to a product in its physical form. In this use, metaphors help to translate abstract concepts into concrete product properties, which eventually communicate functional, social, psychological, and cultural meanings to users.

  • Nested Russian dolls (matryoshka)
  • Zooming in like Google Maps
  • Boxes in a garage


/ Process

In reimagining the design of an online finding aid for the Seuss Collection, we made use of an experiential, intuitive metaphor for conceptualizing what a finding aid represents and the actions it enables. What we have called the “Box Metaphor”—that is, the representation of the hierarchy of items listed on a finding aid as boxes within boxes—is a spatial metaphor that not only emulates the physical space of an archive, but also gives users a quick, immediate sense of what a finding aid represents and what it should be used for. Building on this metaphor, we made use of dynamic data visualization as a solution for the design weaknesses of the traditional online finding aid.

Using the open source JavaScript library D3.js, we created a dynamic visualization of the Seuss Collection finding aid that is simple, intuitive, and easy to understand. The hierarchy of the traditional finding aid is represented by clickable boxes—only the highest-level categories are visible at first, then clicking one of these boxes reveals that categories’ sub-categories and so on, until one reaches the level of individual items. We have also included other features such as simple and descriptive instruction on how the finding aid works, a feature that allows one to request items by clicking the boxes that represent them, the ability to see digitized images of the items when available, and “breadcrumbs” that remind users of where they are currently located in the hierarchy while they navigate the digital space of the finding aid.

By utilizing this visualization, we have created a finding aid that is more visually stimulating, easier to understand, and more readily accessible to the non-traditional, non-academic user. Unlike traditional finding aids, this design encourages exploration, willing users to click around and explore this digital representation of the collection. It reduces the cognitive load experienced by many users of traditional finding aids by presenting only the necessary information a user needs as they need it, a stark contrast to the lengthy, complex, and text-heavy container lists that are more like to intimidate or bore users rather than empower them to discover information that is meaningful to them.


/ Link

A lo-fi prototype can be found here. (opens in a new tab)