Monday, August 03, 2015

It - Whatever It Is - Must Speak for Itself

San Francisco City Hall
San Francisco City Hall
I was speaking to a colleague last week about construction and maintenance that is occurring at Syracuse University. He noted that many people visit the campus when no one is around, and so the campus itself - the buildings and grounds - must be able to "speak" and tell a story. The more I've thought about that conversation, the more I realize that this is true for our digitization programs, our web sites, our fact, everything.

Between 1998-2000, I worked on a small demonstration project, where we digitized material related to a group of suffragists in the Rochester, NY area. However, we did not include material from suffragists who had lived in Seneca Falls, NY, even though it was seemingly in the region. Why? Because the project sponsor (a consortium) did not have Seneca Falls in its region. We decided to (1) not directly address the absence of material from Seneca Falls and to (2) provide a description of the project's geographic location in a way that wasn't as informative as it could have been (especially to people outside of the U.S.). In essence, we created a web site that didn't say what people wanted to know and thus didn't truly speak for itself. It was a powerful lesson learned.

Today I find that we all still - intentionally or not - limit what our creations can say or explain on their own. We still do not fully describe what is or isn't available on a web site. We don't tell me how to contact us if they have  question. We put bad signage on our buildings and in our libraries. We figure that people will ask, but forget that people use our materials, sites and buildings (or campuses) when we're not available. (And what if they ask someone who doesn't know?) The inability for it - whatever it is - to provide information on its own could cause people to consider it not worthwhile, and to never come back. Informative descriptions and signage empowers people, and people like feeling empowered so they are more likely to come back.

Consider your project, your web site, your building, your neighborhood - whatever it is - and think about whether it conveys information that people need, even when there is no one around to answer a question. If it doesn't, then you have some work to do.

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