This is a case where I was a member a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded research team working on a unique community-centered design project. As a member of the research team, I travelled to the community’s home in the Middle East, conducted ethnographic and user experience research, helped design and build a proof-of-concept prototype, and shared our findings in many scholarly venues.
Background: research with a living community
Michigan State College (later University) was bequeathed a large set of materials collected by a wealthy industrialist during his travels of the Middle East in the early 20th century. This collection includes a number of important texts from the Samaritan community that they originally sold to pay for basic necessities the community desperately needed at the time: food, shelter, and schools.
In 2003, a representative of the Samaritan community came to MSU to plead for the texts to be returned, or at the very least made publicly available to promote their study, but received no promises or commitments from the university. In 2008, after learning about the collection and about the community’s efforts to access their materials, MSU graduate student Jim Ridolfo reached out to the representative to propose a project that would research how the Samaritan texts could be put online in a way that would support the kind of scholarly work the community wished to do.
Ridolfo, then a graduate assistant at the Writing in Digital Environments (WIDE) Research Center, worked with center co-director Bill Hart-Davidson to apply for a Digital Start-Up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a community-centered design approach for digital archives. The abstract from the grant proposal:
This project will work with Michigan State University units and the A.B. Samaritan Institute in Holon, Israel to create using the latest in Web 2.0 technologies an accessible, useable and living archive for the Israelite Samaritan community in Holon and Nabulus as well as biblical scholars. To facilitate this work we will digitize over the next several years three 15th century Israelite Samaritan Pentateuch scrolls, and provide a unique suite of tools to help facilitate collaboration: social networking, tagging, social bookmarking, zoomify view, and multilingual support. The aim is to bring together two distinct groups of users – textual scholars and members of the Israelite Samaritan community – both of whom have a significant stake in the cultural and scholarly value of the Samaritan Archive, via an online environment in which they can view and interpret the Samaritan texts, interact with members of their respective communities, and interact with one another.
They won the grant and they recruited me to join the project as a UX researcher and interface designer; I would help conduct research with the community and design both low and high-fidelity prototypes that we could test with them.
For a more in-depth look at the history of the Samaritan community, the NEH grant, and our fieldwork, see the white paper we produced to conclude this project for the NEH.
Research Scope and User Stories
The bulk of our research would be conducted with the Samaritan communities in Israel and the West Bank. We intended to ask them what they wanted to see in an online archive of materials in the MSU collection and how they, in general, used digital technology to access information.
We developed several mockups before our travel that we would show to the community for feedback. We specifically wanted to know how they might browse scanned images, what they would look for in those images, and how they might go about annotating them. We produced mockup interfaces that we could print and bring with us to use in the event of limited internet access, but also a functional version of an interface using Zoomify that could be demonstrated offline.
We did not develop a set of user stories at the time because we wanted to develop those with the community based on what we learned from our fieldwork. However, we were operating under an assumption that community members would be interested in browsing all of the scans for weekly use in religious rituals.
In May of 2009, Jim Ridolfo and I traveled to Holon, Israel and Mt. Gerizim, Palestinian Authority to conduct our primary research with the Samaritan community. We conducted formal interviews over the course of two days, met with the Samaritan High Priest, and attended meetings and ceremonial functions with families in the community.
On Mt. Gerizim we conducted three individual usability sessions; interviews were conducted in an apartment made available to us by the community for this purpose. We showed each participant our mockups and prototype and asked questions about how the features we imagined intersected with their goals for accessing the texts in the archive. We also conducted a group walkthrough with members of the Samaritan community in Holon, Israel. This walkthrough functioned largely in the same manner as the individual interviews, but it provided us with the added benefit of listening to groups of participants discuss the various mockup archive designs with each other, rather than only responding to and interacting with us, the researchers.
During these interviews we made a number of observations regarding the Samaritan community’s textual practices that significantly influenced our work toward a functional, community-centered prototype. One of the first things we learned was that our only assumed user story – that people would want to skim through and read each scanned page – was entirely off the mark. Participants told us that they rarely browse widely through their texts, but instead they more often skip directly to the specific weekly Torah portion (parsha) section.
Along this same line, participants told us that our method for organizing the scans by the chapter-and-verse structure favored by biblical scholars would not be appropriate for the community. They are taught to memorize the text and orally chant it from an early age and are thus intimately familiar with the text.
To accommodate this community’s preferred information architecture in our interfaces, participants suggested that each page be labeled according to its corresponding parsha (or weekly portion) name. Labeling in this method would in turn make the digital archive more useful for any weekly Samaritan parsha study leading up to the Friday night Erev Shabbat, when all use of electronics stops until after sunset on Saturday.
We were also able to witness how the community interacts with their texts in ways that we would never have been able to understand without a site visit. For example, texts like those in possession of Michigan State are family relics passed down from generation to generation, kept in a safe except for important dates or rituals. Each successive generation responsible for the text wraps it in a new piece of protective cloth. In the image above, more than 30 generations of the same family had been responsible for caring for that text since the 14th century.
Adopting the information architecture of the Samaritan parsha was a significant shift for us. Not only did our interface designs change, but also the information architecture upon which we based those designs. For example, the Samaritan parsha breakdown differs in many ways from the Jewish parsha structure, so we needed to spend time after our research trip corresponding with the Samaritans about their unique Samaritan Hebrew (as well as the transliterated English) names for each parsha section.
We realized that we needed to build a tool to develop this architecture, and this need in turn led to our first functional prototype tailored to include the community in the ecological growth of the archive metadata.
The idea behind this prototype is that the ecology of a healthy digital archive requires sustained engagement by as many stakeholders as possible, and that ideally the ability to grow the metadata for digital archives rests more in the hands of stakeholder communities and less in the hands of designers and archivists. Unlike our earliest prototypes, was directly informed by our field observations of how the Samaritans utilize memorization for textual navigation.
Once this first prototype was functional we resumed our long-distance dialogue with the Samaritans and asked for critical feedback and help in refining the prototype. Based on their feedback, we dropped the book labeling, word count features, and numerical verse identification of the first prototype and rebuilt the information architecture to model the Samaritan parsha structure (that data was supplied by the community). The interface was rebuilt to ask users to identify which parshot are included on each scanned page and to provide any notes that might be relevant to that particular page. The interface was also restructured to be bilingual and easier for the community to use.
Outcomes / Takeaways
While our prototype itself is not an instance of an archive, it is meant to embody one of the essential practices of the research and archival design method we advocate for. Specifically, the Samaritan community helped us see not only how they structure information, but then with our prototype helped us develop the information architecture necessary to properly organize the individual artifacts. It proved to be an essential tool in the development of an archive that is meaningful and useful to cultural stakeholder communities.
Once our initial work conducting research and building prototypes was complete, we published and presented fairly extensively:
- Archive 2.0 [PDF Download]: Imagining The Michigan State University Israelite Samaritan Scroll Collection as the Foundation for a Thriving Social Network
- Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities: Imagining The Michigan State University Israelite Samaritan Collection as the Foundation for a Thriving Social Network’, Journal of Community Informatics, 7:3. N.page, 2012.
- Balancing Stakeholder Needs: Archive 2.0 as Community-centred Design. Ariadne 63, 2010.
- Archive 2.0 as a Rhetorical Model for Balancing Stakeholder Needs. College Conference on Composition and Communication, Featured Session (2011, April 8)
- Tailoring the digital archive to the needs of cultural and scholarly stakeholders: The Samaritan Archive 2.0 Project. Reimagining the Archive: Remapping and Remixing Traditional Modes in the Digital Era, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, (2010, Nov 13)
Work on the project continued even after our work as a team completed. Michigan State has since begun protecting many of the Samaritan texts in archival conditions (e.g. a climate-controlled environment) and Ridolfo has continued his work with the community, publishing his book Digital Samaritans in 2015.