Flash Over Substance: The National Archives Experience

As deep databases of primary sources become more common, the traditional public providers of online historical content (the Library of Congress, various universities and historical societies) are being challenged by commercial newcomers such as Footnote.com and Google Book Search. Commercial developers seem to have more resources for site design and have produced databases that are often more attractive than their public counterparts. Also the commercial sites tend to be more interactive, allowing users to save, annotate, manipulate and share what they find online. The older public sites are far more static, based on a 19th century museum model of look, don't touch.

The new National Archives Experience attempts to bring the National Archives into the Web 2.0 world. When you arrive at the site you are met with a flash animation of dancing words, inviting us to "Unlock the Digital Vault!" and that the National Archives has selected 1,200 records for us to explore online.

1200? Did they forget a couple of zeros? Alas, they did not.

The default interface is similarly designed to impress rather than educate. A set of eight icons twirl around a bit then settle down in an oval around a text box that invites us to "Select a starting point to begin exploring." But the images are not labeled--you will be exploring on your own. What does that picture of some geometric shapes stand for? Hovering the cursor over the images produces a box with a cryptic bit of text meant I suppose to intrigue, in this case "Claim Rejected." Ah, so that is what this is about! Some sort of claim by some person or person for something during some period of time that was rejected. I clicked on the icon for more information. Here is the next screen:

What the hell is this? The avocado colored navigation aid on the left offers us a choice of six "tags": Families, Fraktur (?), Illustrated Family Record, Pennsylvania, Revolutionary War, or Soldiers. It is by no means clear what any of these have to do with our document--since we still don't know a single fact about the "Claim Rejected." And clicking on the tags just makes the background dance around some more and the icons to change. This, my friends, is horrible, arrogant web design.

It turns out that you click on the little unlabeled plus sign to see the document. At which point I discover that the claim rejected was a claim for a widow's pension from Margaret Schwartz, whose late husband had served in a unit of Pennsylvania Artillery during the revolution. I would quote directly from the document description, but the flash interface prevents me from copying and pasting from the site. Grrrr. Here is a screenshot:

As you can see, the document itself appears in a frame on the left. We can zoom in on the document and even print it out, but cannot copy it (except with a screenshot as I have done here). We still do not know the date of the document, or the place where it was written, or any other basic bibliographic information. And in fact, the document is in German, and no translation is provided.

The search function is primitive, non-intuitive and allows only basic keyword searching. And the results are displayed in a long band of unlabeled icons along the bottom of the screen. Below are the results for a search for "revolution." What are these documents? You tell me:

In fairness, there are a couple of neat features at the National Archives Experience that I have not seen anywhere else. The "Create" tab takes us to screens where we may create posters and movies from items in the collection. The movie maker is like a stripped-down online version of Microsoft's free Photostory software, which is very popular with educators. But you cannot add sound, or text beyond a title page, or a thousand and one other things you could do with some free software on your own computer if only you could save the darned images from the National Archives site. Also you can create a "Pathway Challenge," a sort of web quest through the documents.

The National Archives Experience is what can happen when digitization projects go bad. The designers apparently became enamored of all the pretty things they could do with their documents and flash, and forgot to make the site useful or to give it a purpose. You can't do historical research on the site, it is not useful for teaching, and you can't grab the images and documents to use in a presentation.

Amazingly, the National Archives Experience has won a “Best of the Web” award from the Museums and the Web conference, recognizing “the best work in museum web design and development.”