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Interface Design and Different Ways of Thinking about Stereocards

Interface Design and Different Ways of Thinking about Stereocards

A good user interface shouldn't be seen as a minor concern or a frilly add-on. The interface is a user's first point of contact with your project and a website that is unattractive or difficult to navigate can make you seem less credible and alienate your audience. But more than attractiveness or accessibility, an interface also promotes certain ways of thinking about or imagining what you digitize. How you design the interface encourages certain ways of reading, viewing and behaving (i.e. interacting with its contents). The Turning the Pages project, which uses software jointly designed by the British Library and Armadillo New Media Communications, describes a methodology that I found very useful in thinking about, designing and describing my own project. This post will describe how these ways of thinking about stereocards surfaces in the user interface design.


The Stereocard as Object

In addition to stereoGIFs, my project will also have 2D scans of both the front and back of the stereocard. To represent the stereocard as a holistic object, I borrowed a 3D flipcard technique that uses both CSS and JavaScript to "flip" between views of the stereocard at the click of a mouse (or mousepad). I also added a subtle drop shadow along the stereocard's edges. Together, the flip animation and drop shadow give the illusion of volume and movement in a 3D space. This is a radically different experience than simply clicking between thumbnails to bring up views of the stereocard's front and back.

For the British Library, imagining the book as object encourages the feeling that you are looking at the real, physical thing—the actual, iconic The History of England as written by 15-year-old Jane Austen, for example—that is otherwise inaccessible. Stereocards, however, were mass-produced and don't have the same "aura" about them as the rare books in the British Library. But I still think the card itself, not just the stereophotography on it, is worth representing. The card is a symbol of the commercially-driven, mass-production and mass-consumption that is integral to understanding stereophotography as a medium. Representing the stereocard as object also reminds people that there is a physical counterpart they can request to see, touch and handle at the Special Collections Library (something that you unfortunately can't do with The History of England).


The Stereocard as Content and as Window into the Past

To include contextual information about the photographs' contents, I've overlaid the 2D scans with contextual icons. When an icon is clicked, a popover appears with information the user might not have known but provide social or historical background or connections to contemporary works or events (the one pictured below contains dummy text because I haven't written the copy yet).

For example, viewers of the "Along the noted Bowery Street" stereocard might not know that the Bowery at that time (1896) was "noted" for its overcrowding, poverty and crime. Jacob Riis, a famous early photographer and social reformer starkly depicted this overcrowding and poverty in his own photography and his 1890 publication, How the Other Half Lives, serves as an excellent counterpoint to the rather sanitized photographs of the stereocard.

The interface also allows for different reading experiences—or no reading at all. Although including the context in the first place promotes the assumption that you should know something about the photograph's context in order to appreciate it fully, I've included the option to hide the contextual icons. You can simply view images of the stereocards if you are, for example, only interested in its aesthetic properties or want to free view the stereograph without interruption. It's also possible to read only about the particular parts of the photograph you're interested in (e.g. the elevated train) and ignore the rest.


The Stereocard as Gateway to Future Learning

My project can be said to promote research in the sense of promoting research materials in Special Collections and making these materials more available in digital form.  But I wanted to further encourage research by including hyperlinks to the contemporary works I mention and the scholarly articles I reference. These links would both cite the sources from which I get my information but also enable and encourage further exploration into a topic or topics related to it.

It's my hope that my project will encourage a kind of tangential learning. I may not, for example, delve too deeply into Jacob Riis' photography and contributions to social reform, but I would like to encourage users to be curious and follow the rabbit hole as far as they dare -- even if it means three hours of fascinated clicking.

xkcd comic about the problem with Wikipedia


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