Generous interfaces

This week I stumbled across a reference to Mitchell Whitelaw’s paper “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”. The abstract:

Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query. This paper argues for a more generous alternative: rich, browsable interfaces that reveal the scale and complexity of digital heritage collections. Drawing on related work and precedents from information retrieval and visualisation, as well as critical humanistic approaches to the interface, this paper documents and analyses practical experiments in generous interfaces developed in collaboration with Australian cultural institutions.

I wish I’d read this paper 20 years ago, when I first became interested in browsing interfaces for the web. I have no formal education in human-computer interaction, but I knew there must be a rich literature about browsing interfaces. There is; Whitelaw cites it. I’ve searched for that literature sporadically for two decades, but until now I’ve failed to find a good entry point – largely (and ironically) because I’ve lacked the vocabulary to formulate the right keyword searches.

Whitelaw’s literature review is excellent, but the real gems of his paper are case studies of generous interfaces the author has developed, including Manly Images, Australian Prints and Printmaking, and Discover the Queenslander. Whitelaw’s web site catalogs more generous interfaces he’s created since the paper was published in 2015. My favorite is The Early Modern Women’s Complaint Poetry Index, which is both beautiful and educational.