Blog Post

Why Are Academic Websites So Ugly?

In my research I look for the nineteenth-century American poems that I believe have been wronged by being printed in physical books, and I create interactive digital websites for reading them instead. This project is the culmination of a lot of study and analysis, but is related to a question I’ve had for quite some time:

Why are academic websites so ugly?

I explore scholarly websites a lot in my work -- especially archives. I look through digital scans and metadata in search of unusual moments in print history, but the exploration is often awkward and unpleasant. Sidebars seem to come out of nowhere, search engines return poor results, and long jargon-filled explanatory paragraphs overwhelm the screen. I am forced to spend my time searching for very specific items, rather than enjoying the sense of open-ended discovery every academic is familiar with -- the experience that comes along with research in physical archives where we can wander down long rows of books that smell like old paper and move beneath our fingers.

I've wondered why we often accept that digital discovery is less tactile and enjoyable. Why do we divorce the aesthetic experience of physical research in archives from the process of research on and through computers? I think it goes back to the historic divide between art and technology that started in the mid-19th century -- but the original 17th-century word “technology” had little to do with industry and machines. (It comes from the Greek word tekhnologia, meaning the systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique.) It wasn’t until the rise of industrial mass-production in the mid-19th century that the definition changed to something more mechanical. People began to see artistry as something derived from the human mind, and machines as the enemy of that process. As a result, we often see things made by machines as “ugly” and don’t question that it should be that way.

We should pay attention to aesthetics when making digital scholarly websites, rather than just focusing on what is in them. We should see the aesthetic and interactive elements of any research environment as inextricably linked to the process and product of what is produced through it. We should embrace the experience of digital research as providing new possibilities unavailable in research in physical spaces -- like the ability to get more (and faster) information about what we’re viewing. But we should also be able to enjoy it just as much as we would enjoy a day in the library or our favorite bookstore.

tl;dr: we can make academic websites pretty too.

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