Willa Cather Archive

Jack and Jacob

Describe and evaluate the project’s design and interface. Evaluate the interactivity and modes of navigation of the project.  (plus: summary and inclusion of question regarding front-end/back end technology)

The functionality of the site is well polished and well designed, but some sections are more useful and intuitive than others.  The drop down menus are user friendly.  They are based on mouse clicks rather than a hover action (which would make them more intuitive for someone less familiar with computer mechanics, like an older audience).  This element of usability is also apparent from the large font size for ease of viewing.  

        The site’s search functionality leverages Google custom searches.  This means that the site can use Google’s sophisticated parsing tools for poorly constructed search queries as well as the extensive searching algorithms behind the custom search framework.  The results are presented cleanly (this is sometimes difficult with Google custom search).

        The books section is presented graphically with covers arranged in a grid on the page.  These are broken into the subsections: “novels,” “short fiction,” “poetry,” and “nonfiction.”  The presentation of the books is effective and the titles are very visible.  However, the presentation of the contents of the books leaves much to be desired.  The site does not utilize an embedded PDF display (think JSTOR) but instead displays the plain text of the books on the main page.  There are no page breaks, so that user must endlessly scroll through the same page to read the book.  This is an unfortunate feature of the site. The site also has indexed Cather’s early journalism and letters.

        The chronology section is useful as it combines a text based timeline and a geospatial representation of events.  The text-based portion is somewhat less difficult as it uses a vertical display of the timeline to display the events.  These are entirely text based.  However, the text includes hyperlinks to images, family trees, and Willa Cather’s works.  If someone moved sequentially through her life, they could view relevant information along the way.  The second component of the chronology section is powered by Google maps. This portion can display marks for significant events on a map.  This provides a geographic situation for events throughout her lifetime and is a useful visualization technique.

        The site contains bibliographic sketches to briefly introduce the user to Willa Cather, an extensive image gallery, audio and a movie.  The image gallery is formed as more of a traditional database.  Rather than displaying the images like the book covers, this section uses pages, an advanced search option, and functionality to narrow a search.  This section contains more material.

        Finally, the site offers the user a “community” section that introduces a ListServ and other methods of staying connected and reaching out beyond the archive.  Overall, the site is well constructed.  The main page is simple, provides access to the major collections, and would likely be useable by a wide audience (potentially unfamiliar with navigating complicated webpages).

The project uses a text visualization and analysis tool called TokenX.  Unfortunately, the technology does not appear to work.  This is a potentially useful tool (adding metatextual analysis to the collection) but the results of the analysis are nowhere to be seen. The project makes use of a well structured front end html experience as well as the back end power of a database.  This backbone is most apparent when searching for images based on criteria and search fields as well as the advanced search option which leverages lexical parsing and exact phrases.  


Describe and evaluate the significance of the scholarship for the humanities.

This project allows anybody that has access to the internet to view documents created by Willa Cather for free. This is a very simple goal which can be seen across countless Digital Humanities projects, making its contributions to the humanities fairly pedestrian. This resource fits into the prototypical early DH project, which focuses on making literature and other information accessible to a greater public. This is yet another great addition to a variety of databases focused on iconic figures in history. It does not make any truly innovative additions to the field of humanities as it can be compared to many other archives such as the Walt Whitman archive. The Walt Whitman Archive is very similarly laid out and contains similar information, just pertaining to a different iconic writer.

How does the project push forward (or fail to push forward) the state of knowledge of a discipline?

Regarding the advancement of knowledge in the discipline, it does a great job. This project presents all information of Willa Cather in a single location, making comparisons between texts far less tedious and problematic. When considering old texts that may have limited availability it is impractical to study them, due to the difficulty of locating and interpreting the texts. Using databases and archives this becomes a problem of the past. Because of resources such as the Willa Cather archive, information availability is at a wider scale than ever before. The information presented through this archive advances the information through also providing a brief description of her life, pictures of Cather, and even video and audio of her. This projects ability to push advance the state of knowledge in the field stems from how it conveys the information presented on the website, but also to present and connect the information on the website in a organized and thought provoking way.

Can you identify the project’s primary research question? What is it? A series of questions?

It is explicitly stated by the creators of the Willa Cather Archive that the goal of creating this archive was to make the works and life of Willa Cather to the public without any prejudice. This includes listings of her pieces of writing, the history of her life, and actual documents posted on the website. In addition to this they also look to present the knowledge in a thought provoking manner that is not possible without the works of digital humanities.

What do you consider to be the successes and failures of the project?

The successes of this project include the clean user interface, and the overall quality of the presentation of the information. It is a great looking website, with a straightforward interface that most individuals would be able to navigate with ease. The one minor gripe with the website would be the search engine used. Advanced search options come as a default in nearly all archives and databases and the Willa Cather Archive does not process that. This would be useful for filtering by date, genre, and other aspects of pieces of writing that are already included in the archive. These mechanics are available when sorting the list of writing pieces but not when searching through the archive. This addition would be fantastic and it will add to the usability of the website.  


Consider the role of the project director (listed in parentheses). What influence does the project director have on the project’s success (or failure)?

Andrew Jewel headed the project team for the project.  He designed and edited the site, while employing the skills of a plethora of engineers and professors.  His background is in English literature and he worked alongside members of the staff with experience in the Digital Humanities as a discipline.  The success and endurance of the project is a testament to his leadership.  In this case, his most important contribution was leading a diverse and well-qualified team.


Consider using your rubric and applying whatever form of evaluation from that assignment that might work best with the project you are examining.

For the most part, our answers to the above questions encompass our evaluation.  Interface, usability, and material are of unparalleled importance and we found that the archive met those basic criteria.  Like any project, the archive shows relative strengths and weaknesses, but overall, it functions as a source of information and knows its audience well. Our evaluation was a litmus test; if we visited the site, could we find the information about the writer and her work that we sought?  This evaluation was a function of usability, expansiveness, and the analysis of a tool designed to be versatile.