My first impressions of the Blake Archive were actually nostalgic—the interface reminds me of my experience browsing the web in the early days of HTML: swear to God, my first thoughts were “Aw, this is so 1999.” Now, I’m not going to hold the absence of Flash/HTML5/ten billion-New-Media-links against the site—I have seen far too many Flash(y) sites whose design makes me wonder if the creator’s previous work involved accommodating a Minotaur. In other words, any paucity of more recent web innovations matters only inasmuch as I find my ability to navigate the site compromised.
With that out of the way, my first criticism is one of proportion. The Welcome page, which informs the viewer of the site’s purpose and rights-management policy, features a tiny ‘Enter the Archive’ button at the bottom of the screen. Clicking this button is how one enters the site, and I literally could not find the blasted thing on my first visit—it’s that tiny at 1080p. I spent far too long clicking on images, coloured text, and the refresh button before I spotted the little bugger down below. A quick look at the page’s source reveals the problem: a 30px height, which to me screams, “Greetings from planet 12” CRT!” Resolution can no longer be expected to be uniform 640×480—display code really has to be robust to accommodate today’s plurality of interfaces. This issue is not confined to the Welcome page—the issue reappears multiple times in different iterations, and it is always maddening.
Upon entering the site, I was struck by an absence—no navigation bar in the header of the Table of Contents page. No navigation bar in the footer, either—this, as I soon found out, appears once one delves further into the site. As it is, the ToC screen provides a stand-faire list of links, tastefully abutting a randomized image from Blake’s catalogue—rather a nice touch, that. Clicking on any of the links (the usual assortment, ranging from the works themselves to a site-wide search engine) takes the viewer to the page in question and—mercifully—a page with a navigation bar. I cannot overstress the importance of such a feature. Nowadays, a website must be truly effortless and intuitive: the Internets has truly become an appendage (aka. prosthesis for all you theory pukes) for the user. Anyway, the navigation bar is at the bottom (which is odd, but not necessarily heresy), an assortment of images overlaid with small type. I really would like to see the more conventional style of navigation links, where one can go to any section of the website direct from the navigation bar; instead, there is a ‘Navigator’ icon, which makes me think of Netscape Navigator and really shows my age. Clicking on this icon brings up a hierarchical interface leading to various avenues of the site—honestly, I’m reminded of the old style FTP servers. I can see why The Blake Archive chose this format, but ultimately I found it tedious and non-intuitive.
Before heading to the ‘meat’ of the content itself, I decided to give the Tour our Site page a try. The reason I dwell on this is, in my experience, a substantial portion of the users on an academic site will be, well, academics—many of whom did not have the benefit of growing up with the Information SuperhighwayÔ. Anyway, the “tour” takes the form of a left column of text which occupies perhaps 20% of the screen; to the right are images demonstrating the steps described on the left. This rightmost portion has forward and back arrows, and hypertext in the left-text column calls up sundry images; I personally would go for a more synergistic interface between image and text, but I can see the advantages to this methodology. What I cannot see, however, is why the division-bar between the text and the images is not adjustable. It is not possible to change the ratio between text and image columns and, for me, text in a compressed column is a hassle. And no, changing the window size doesn’t help—the pixel width of the columns is static. The issue is the same as I mentioned with the ‘Enter this Site’ button earlier: size and spacing in websites these days needs to be dynamic. It may seem like I’m nit-picking here, and perhaps I am—I only harp on this because my own Digital Humanities project encountered a similar issue, and our clients (rightly) complained.
All these criticisms aside, the proof is in the pudding, and for this site the pudding is the Blake content itself. [You said the content was meat before, and now you’re calling it pudding. –ED. Maybe it’s steak and kidney pudding. –AF.] I’m happy to say that, once reaching the Blake poems themselves, the Blake Archive really shines. For evaluative purposes I viewed Blake’s excellent Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Once a specific work is selected, the interface presents the viewer with a veritable cornucopia [Really? –ED.] of electronic editions to choose from, organized chronologically. A brief blurb follows, and the Archive then provides an encyclopedic catalogue of all copies and related drawings, whether or not they are presently accessible. I personally found this listing somewhat cluttered, but from the perspective of a visiting scholar, any messiness is easily excused by comprehensive utility. Clicking on one of the editions, I am presented with a table of contents for the images of the manuscript—each facsimile styled not as ‘image’ or ‘page’ but, bizarrely, as ‘object.’ This is a classic instance of “I know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and I appreciate it, but it still seems wrong.” ‘Object’ is a nice catch all term, but it falls victim to Hegel’s criticism of ‘the night in which all cows are black’—catching everything and saying nothing. [That’s your quota for obscure phil. references –ED.]
Clicking on the object, however, I am presented with a wonderful interface wherein I can zoom the image, access other ‘objects’ from this copy, retrieve meta-data concerning the edition and the image, and finally access to a textual transcription of the text. Coming down on the content side of the endless form/content debate (PM me for my street address if you want to commence egging my apartment), I cannot emphasize how essential this feature is. Speaking of essential features, the interface provides a ‘calibrate’ button, leading to an applet wherein the dpi of the image can be adjusted; this is accomplished by moving a slider until tick marks on the screen match up with a physical ruler the user holds up to the screen. I have never seen this feature before, and, given my nostalgic mood: i ❤ it.
I’ve saved the best for last, as it were, and that is a button which initially had me curious: ‘Send to Lightbox.” The Lightbox is in essence an image viewing applet, allowing zooming and cropping of individual object pages. A handy features is the ability to call-up other pages from the same Copy via right-clicking within the Lightbox frame—this is extremely convenient, and makes comparisons between pages, copies and editions a breeze. The Lightbox’s functionality goes far beyond, however—one has the option of viewing annotations, which are overlaid by section over the written text. The annotations describe (in detail which would satisfy even the most finicky of Blake scholars) the illustrations both without and within the text. These annotations tell rather than critically explicate—and they tell in startlingly nuanced detail of every artifact of consequence one could find in Blake. This functionality is an indispensible tool for any viewer remotely interested in Blake’s visualizations, and, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, makes good on the promise of the digital humanities.
I ended on a high-note, and that is deliberate: taken as a whole, the Blake Archive is a wonderful tool which does what it is supposed to, and features the sort of functionality which should be mandatory for all digital humanities initiatives of this sort. My criticisms are not so much of the interface as the lack of ‘keeping up with the times’—as just one more example, the site is built around java-script, which to my mind has largely been depreciated in favour of more convenient interfaces. On at least one occasion the script caused my browser hang, and I found it necessary to restart Google Chrome (fyi, I am running a 2011 MBP which easily accommodates Photoshop, Illustrator and Maya simultaneously). My point is the interface hurts rather than helps the project. As I alluded to before, I believe the web has moved from a purely archival storage and retrieval paradigm to a more immersive user experience; the digital humanities, imho, must keep pace with this shift. I acknowledge that this is easier said than done within the contemporary financial climate; I can only respond that the proposition ‘upgrade or die!’ is, at the risk of overdoing the philosophy references, one of Either/Or.