Using Participatory Design to Improve Web Sites: After I Digitized Medieval Slavic Manuscripts, I Learned Why There Are So Few Web Sites about Medieval Studies and How Participatory Design Can Help Build Useful Ones

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In a previous adventure (Computers in Libraries, April 2002), I told readers how I saved deteriorating treasures for further study by digitizing Slavic medieval manuscripts. A great deal of trial and error went into capturing those photos and producing the Web sites to display them. Now, let me share with you my recent experiences and the lessons learned as the work has continued. These lessons include discovering the historical accident underlying much medieval study, the resulting lack of Web sites, and how participatory design has mitigated this problem.


The Historical Accident

"Why were the Middle Ages called the Dark Ages?" my daughter challenged me one day. I started to lecture her, and she interrupted me impatiently: "No! Because there were so many knights! Do you understand, mommy? Because of the (k)nights?" Seriously though, there is a reason for the nickname. One of the earliest and most important art historians, a 16th-century Italian named Giorgio Vassari, decided that Byzantine art was "ugly and clumsy." (1) He labeled the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, referring specifically to Byzantine art. (2) Not only did Vassari dislike Byzantine art, he labeled Byzantine art history as a mere "option." Because of Vassari, the gap between East and West widened. For example, based upon my interviews with professors of library history, art history, Slavic languages, and medieval hypertextuality, western European medieval studies have distanced and marginalized southern Slavic medieval studies.

Vassari's 16th-century historical accident still affects the availability of resources and collection development in libraries today, as Slavic resources wither in the margins of library collections while French and English literary genres flourish and occupy entire floors of libraries. One professor of Slavic languages stated: "Demoralizing! One little quarter on the fifth floor was dedicated to Russian, and within this corner, a tiny bit of corner to other Slavic languages!"

The Situation Today

Five years ago, the Internet contained no Web sites with images of Slavic manuscripts. (3) Today, there are only three. Bulgarian and other Slavic scholars grieve about this "clear gap" in Slavic cultural heritage resources on the Web. (4) They blame obsolete data formats and tools, linguistic difficulties, lack (with minor exceptions) of manuscripts that already have been digitized, and lack of financial support for digitizing manuscripts and resolving copyright issues. Other factors include the wide variety of computer hardware and software that prevent standardization. (5)

I asked myself several questions: Can any librarian confront the academic community? Could I refute Vassari? Could I fill this gap in Slavic resources with online materials? If I did, would scholars accept them? How do you measure acceptance? The answers lie in participatory design (PD), a method in which the researchers and scholars who use a Web site help to design it. But would they help me re-create my sites?

Participatory design (PD) originated in Scandinavia in the 1970s as a way to empower workers by involving them in the design of tools and artifacts. (6) The method drew on the workers' "tacit knowledge"--i.e., their implicit or unarticulated knowledge learned and transmitted through experience and apprenticeship. At first glance, PD sounds like user-centered design, but there are differences. PD is design by users, while user-centered design is design for users. (7)

In today's library school curriculum, we have developed several disciplines that design user-friendly computer interfaces, such as user studies, information architecture, and human-computer interaction. However, Web designers rarely involve users in the actual design process. (8) Whether it's a cause or an effect of not involving users, contemporary interface design focuses on usability, not functionality. …


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