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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

User-Centered Design for Digital Collections

Michael Edmonds

Digital Librarian, Wisconsin Historical Society

The ultimate point of sharing collections online is to deliver information that people need. Curators and librarians have buildings full of information and thousands of users seeking it, but too often neglect a fundamental way to bring the two together. By putting users first when digital collections are envisaged and created, benefits to audiences and institutions can be increased.

"User-centered design" (UCD) is an approach that industrial engineers and commercial enterprises have employed for decades. After all, a business that fails to understand what its customers want is a business likely to fail altogether. UCD therefore sprung up as a discipline that integrates the needs and wants of users into every stage of the design process. For digital librarians, this means talking to audiences before, during, and after an online collection is built. We don't need M.B.A.s to do this successfully—just a willingness to share some of our professional authority with our users.

The first step is to precisely define the intended audience for a new digital collection. Do you want to reach history majors on your own college campus, genealogists with Irish ancestors, school teachers across your entire state, advanced scholars within a specific discipline? Identify who they are, where they are located and where they turn for information.

For example, when the Wisconsin Historical Society wanted to reach K-12 teachers who are re quired to cover state history, we obtained a database of mailing addresses from government education officials. Teachers also consistently told us that their school librarian was the person whose advice they most trusted about new Web resources, so we obtained members' email addresses from the state's school library association.

The next step was to find out what they needed and draw them into the process of selecting and presenting materials.

With the help of specialists in the state's history, we drew up a list of nearly 100 pivotal events from Wisconsin's past and listed them on a ballot on our Web site. Because state education standards presented Wisconsin history in a framework of predefined themes, we mimicked this official taxonomy, which our target audience already knew, when designing the ballot.

Then we sent 14,000 letters to educators—every K-12 teacher required to cover the state's history in the classroom—inviting him or her to take students to the school media center and vote on what they wanted us to digitize. We followed this up with messages to every school librarian, notes in professional newsletters and listservs, and press releases to every small-town newspaper in which we also invited parents to participate.

The result was more than 100,000 votes telling us which historical events our target audience cared most about. We tweaked the results slightly to ensure chronological, geographic and ethnic distribution, and then started pulling manuscripts, photos, journals and rare books to scan.

We contacted teachers who said they were willing to participate further and asked about the user interface they wanted. We quickly learned that giving busy teachers 1,000 historical documents was like taking a hungry person to a supermarket; they didn't need raw ingredients, they needed a meal. We therefore wrote summaries to explain the context and significance of each source, provided lesson plans linked to the documents, compiled an online Dictionary of Wisconsin History, and mounted a teachers' manual. We also tested a prototype interface on visiting groups of teachers and National History Day students to work out its functionality.

The result was Turning Points in Wisconsin History, a digital collection which today contains more than 20,000 pages of primary source material. It has been acclaimed by The Internet Scout Report and History News Network, and won a 2007 Leadership in History award from the American Association for State and Local History.

More importantly, though, Wisconsin teachers and their students use it thousands of times each day. Putting users first and incorporating their preferences ensured that they would be pleased with the result. Regular users also include local historians and scholars, and more than one university history course syllabus has been built around it. Its 80-page teachers' manual, History and Critical Thinking: A Handbook, has been adopted by educators at the secondary and university levels.

User-centric planning didn't end when Turning Points went live. We later added links for users to ask research questions. Such queries are received several times a week, and we typically reply the same day, if only to say that a thorough answer may take longer. Other users point out omissions or suggest new documents to include, and the continuing expansion of the collection is largely driven by audience input. We also maintain a user-satisfaction survey for ongoing refinement of the site's functionality.

Turning Points in Wisconsin History is far from perfect or even cutting-edge. But by identifying its target audiences, soliciting their input and enabling them to participate in decisions about its content and design, the site is popular and successful despite its shortcomings.

One unexpected benefit of the user-centered approach has been increased support for our institution. As our chief fund-raiser once pointed out, "Every communication is a development communication." Every educator, parent or local historian who gets an immediate answer to their Turning Points question, who sees a correction promptly posted or whose suggested document shows up weeks later becomes a loyal supporter. Some become members and donors. Inviting your target audience to help build your next digital collection could also help you sustain it indefinitely.

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