Zach Kleinbaum, Electra Washburn
Midterm Writing Assignment
Describe and evaluate the significance of the scholarship for the humanities?
Voice of the Shuttle is a database dedicated to the humanities. VoS consists of extensive research in the form of weblinks on twenty-eight disciplines of the humanities. Within these twenty-eight categories, there are hundreds of links that direct the user towards research and scholarly articles related to these categories. The topics range from traditional humanities such as Anthropology, Art History, and History to more obscure humanitarian disciplines such as Cyberculture, Minority Studies, and Technology of Writing. The fact that there is such a broad scope of disciplines is one aspect that allows the website to significantly contribute to humanities scholarship. Additionally, the detailed organization of links creates a serious and comprehensive database on the humanities. Overall, the volume and range of information that this database consists of makes it an extremely relevant source of scholarship for the humanities.
How does the project push forward (or fail to push forward) the state of knowledge of a discipline?
Voice of the Shuttle certainly pushes the state of humanity’s knowledge forward. The volume of material on the the various subjects is one obvious way in which the database contributes to the knowledge of various disciplines within the humanities. Before opening any of the links on a certain disciple, one can gather a great deal of information by simply looking at the organizations and titles of the links that lead to the actual articles. For example, under the category of “Photography” on the homepage of the database, one can immediately recognize some of the major Photography Museums by looking at the titles listed under “Galleries and Museums.” Additionally, one can tell that one of the most important photographers is Ansel Adams, for most of the links under “Photography” fall under the category “Ansel Adams.” Therefore, by simply glancing at this database, one would learn more about these humanitarian disciplines. Once one wants to explore these topics in greater depth, the organization of the website makes it extremely easy for the user to do so. One critique of the way in which this project pushes the state of knowledge of the disciplines forward, is that is does not include any original research. Additionally, the fact that some links do not work is a way that the project fails to push forward the state of knowledge. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the access and volume to hundreds of other websites ultimately makes the project successful in pushing the knowledge of the discipline forward.
Can you identify the project’s primary research question? What is it? A series of questions?
There is not necessarily a clear question that this project aims to answer. The project is more of a resource that provides links to more information on various fields of the humanities than a unified set of pages that aims to answer a question or questions on a single topic. I would say that access to information, specifically primary and secondary sources, is the primary purpose of this project; however, one overarching question that the distribution of these links could lead to is, “How does one gain a deeper knowledge of the humanities?”
Describe and evaluate the project’s design and interface. Evaluate the interactivity and modes of navigation of the project.
The design and interface of this project seems rather outdated. The aesthetic of the project is reminiscent of websites from when it was first created in 1994. Additionally, the color scheme of the project is bland and there is no aspect that the user’s eye is drawn to. The layout of the project, with a short description of what it is on the homepage and the list of humanitarian disciplines that the project provides information on on the left, is extremely simple. Additionally, there is a lack of visuals throughout this project, which makes it less interesting for the viewer. In terms of the interface, there is no advanced form of interactivity. The only forms of interactivity are the ability to click on the links that lead to websites or articles, and occasionally small boxes next to categories that one can click on to get to “subcategories.” The modes of navigation of this project are simply clicking links. I think that this project would greatly benefit from updating its design and interface; however the information is presented in an extremely clear manner that is easy to navigate, which is arguably the most important feature of a DH project.
What technologies does the project employ (both frontend and backend) and how does the scholarship make use of these technologies?
Front end technologies are those that create the user interface of a digital humanities project and are critical when judging usability and interactivity. An accessible and comprehendible interface allows for a project to convey its argument more effectively to the user. The VoS front end technology is archaic, muddled, and confusing. The design is a simple one made using HTML, but fails to provide the user with any direction in their use of the database. The main page lists the different categories of content and each one takes the user to a page of hyperlinks with related source materials, however the user must navigate through several links to find something of interest. Overall, the front end of VoS can be approved. One possible improvement is to enhance the descriptions of the hyperlinks, so users know what kind of source they are choosing.
Back end technology consists of servers and databases responsible for the management of data. The back end technology used by VoS consists of a SQL Server database, ASP, and VB code that allows for a dynamic website. The programming allows for the databases category pages to be generated spontaneously. The back end technology used allows the database to easily add new links and information, because the website is pulling the information from the database. This allows the database to effectively manage the addition of new resources.
What do you consider to be the successes and failures of the project?
I consider the Voice of the Shuttle to be a largely outdated project in the digital humanities. The age of the database shows in its archaic user interface and the lack of properly functioning links. The functionality of the user guide is essentially obsolete as only half of the links work. However, if I was judging the project when it was first created I believe my opinion would differ. But, the functionality of the site is overcome by a basic google search, VoS even suggests on its home page that users should use Google’s feature, “Glossary” as an alternative to its own services.
With disregard to the current flaws, VoS was one of the first databases to provide a centralized collection of humanity’s resources allowing technology to become a humanities tool of research. The database links to primary sources, secondary sources, and other databases that all aid in humanities research. The ability for users to contribute new links allows for a collection of a wide range of resources. However, the site fails to provide a centralized argument and does not point the user in any direction making it difficult to navigate for new users with no particular subject of interest. I could see how the design could lead some users to endless hours of clicking in a quest for a desirable resource or document. But, I do believe the site is a valuable tool for humanities researchers vying for information on a particular topic.
Consider the role of the project director (listed in parentheses). What influence does the project director have on the project’s success (or failure)?
The project director of the Voice of the Shuttle is Alan Liu, who is a member of UC Santa Barbara’s english department. Liu specializes in cultural studies and created VoS as part of his Digital Humanities research, initially creating the project as a means to connect literature and technology. Like any project director, Liu has played an essential role in creating VoS and maintaining the project since its inception in 1994. Liu’s expertise in the humanities allows him to properly review all the data sources, and users can confide in his ability to judge these sources due to his credibility as a professor. However, Liu has not necessarily made the site easy for others to use. If Liu were able to fix the user guide on his site he has the potential to attract more users, and in turn more contributors. Liu’s role in providing credible information helps support the project, however his neglect towards functionality detracts from its usability.
Consider using your rubric and applying whatever form of evaluation from that assignment that might work best with the project you are examining.
My personal rubric tends to judge a project in the digital humanities based on the following categories: accessibility, manipulability, credibility, and the user experience. I would only give VoS positive reviews in terms of manipulability and credibility. I find that Alan Liu and his team at UC Santa Barbara provide the project with an accomplished and knowledgeable team of content reviewers. The ability for user’s to suggest new sites coupled with the backend software, which allows for dynamically created web pages, ensures that new data can constantly be added. However, these features can also harm the site as over collection of resources has resulted in many broken links. With regards to accessibility, the site contains no direction and is merely a collection of information. If the user is new to the site they will have difficulty using the database, thus making the user experience subpar. The usability could potentially be improved with a properly functioning user guide, but at the moment many of those links are broken. Overall the failure to manage broken links has hurt the VoS, but pending a major cleanup the site maintains the ability to attract digital humanities researchers and contribute to the field.