As a Graduate Assistant at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Modern Languages and Linguistics Library, I work closely with Librarian Caroline Szylowicz in the Kolb-Proust Archive and also work on other projects for the library using my knowledge of French language and literature. It was therefore a natural choice for me to collaborate with Caroline on the new Proust Era Collection website as my final project for 590LW2. I have enjoyed working on a site to showcase the work that my colleagues and I have done in developing this collection, as well as learning the basics of web design in order to create web pages that are fairly simple but, in my opinion, well-organized and aesthetically pleasing.
Prior to this summer, I had used FrontPage to edit the French web pages linked from the Modern Languages and Linguistics Library’s home page and to add several web pages on Francophone language, literature, and culture to our site, but I had not yet designed new web pages from scratch and had never worked with Cascading Style Sheets or with Dreamweaver. I was very nervous about whether or not I would be able to complete this project successfully and on time. However, I am pleased with how the pages have turned out and I feel I have learned a lot about web design by working on them, even though my skills are still at a basic level.
Although I was the only member of our 590LW2 class to work on this project, I did have the advantage of regular in-person communication with my “clients,” my coworkers at the Modern Languages Library, as well as some in-person and e-mail contact with Professor Larry Schehr of the UIUC French Department, a Proust Era specialist who has been enthusiastic about and supportive of this project. The goals of the project, the desired structure of the site, and certain aspects of style (such as the main desired colors for the site and the image to be used in the banner at the top of the page) were clearly specified in my initial interview with my coworkers, but I did have some room for design freedom, in areas such as the page layout, the fonts used, the addition of a light-gray background color to the banner and the main headings, and the choices of colors for live, hovered, visited, and active links.
We did make some changes to specifications for the site as I worked on implementing the design, such as adding navigation bar buttons and moving the contact information from the footer to a new, second section of the navigation bar, deciding that header and footer templates would not be needed (because there is no longer a footer and because we can simply save the banner as its own HTML file to be copied and added to any future additional pages), and deciding that an RSS feed for new acquisitions would not be necessary. However, we did not make any major changes to how we would structure the site or to the basic look we had planned on creating. Changes we made as we went along were in the details, such as minor stylistic changes and the decision to divide the long lists of titles on the Recommended Resources, Cultural Context, and Recent Acquisitions pages into more manageable sections, in order to facilitate users’ viewing of these longer pages.
The main challenge I experienced in working for “clients” was that I felt guilty about taking up Caroline’s time by asking her so often about her opinion of the changes I was making. I’m used to working independently on class projects, and I’m neither very patient about taking time to ask for others’ input on my work nor very confident that they will like it. But since I wanted the site to best fit the library’s needs, I knew it was important to consult with Caroline frequently. She was very accessible and didn’t keep me waiting for her feedback.
I believe that the new web site does fulfill the goals that my coworkers and I discussed at the beginning of the project. The site provides an online access point to the Proust Era print collection, and we will make the site itself more visible by putting links to it from the Modern Languages and Linguistics Library home page and from the Kolb-Proust Archive home page. The home page (“About the Collection”) explains the purpose and focus of the collection, while the Cultural Context page provides bibliographical references for users who seek further information about the cultural and literary milieu of the authors represented, including works that discuss views toward homosexuality in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Recommended Resources page offers titles of literary criticism on Proust era authors. The Author Database gives users easy access to biographical and bibliographical information about each of the authors represented in our collection, as well as enabling users to quickly search the UIUC online catalog for our holdings of these authors’ works. Each page includes the navigation bar with links to all the other pages, so it is easy for users to move around the site.
The guiding concept I kept in mind while working on the web page design was KISS (Keep It Simple, Sweetie!). I used a fairly simple page layout with a clear site navigation system, easy-to-spot contact information, a color scheme based on neutrals with maroon for contrast and a bold look, one consistent graphic that was requested by the “clients” and is used throughout the site, and a combination of two readable fonts (with serif for the headers and sans-serif for blocks of text). I followed web standards, validated the pages’ XHTML and CSS coding, and ran them through the WAVE 3.0 Accessibility Tool to make sure they are as accessible as possible.
One of the main design challenges I faced with this site was keeping key information “above the fold” (high up enough on the screen to be seen without a lot of scrolling down). I decided to move the contact information from a footer to the navigation bar so that this information wouldn’t be too far down on long pages. I also divided the long lists of titles on these pages into categories with links to these sections in order to make the pages more readable.
I think that the most successful part of the design is the clean, consistent look of the site, which includes all of the pages requested by my coworkers at the outset of the project. The best part of the process was how easy it was to consult with my colleagues, because we had similar viewpoints on what the site should include and on the importance of creating a simple, professional look. I imagine that the collaboration process does not always go so smoothly, but in our case, there was no squabbling over details, and I was given enough freedom to play around with my own ideas for the site. The worst part of the process was my frustration when I had a hard time getting the layout to work as I wanted. The process was very time-consuming, due to my lack of web design experience. But now that the design has finally come together, I’m pleased with it and relieved that it looks how I had planned.
If I had enough time to continue to develop the site, I might add a few more images on certain pages (such as portraits of some of the authors), although I would not want to make the site too cluttered. I also might try to be a bit more daring with the design to make it look a little more sophisticated–but again, I wouldn’t want to go overboard and make the site visually overwhelming or inaccessible. One way that I could make the coding purer would be to code the elements of the citations found on various pages in XML (with specific codes for author, title, and publishing information) and then to style these elements (for example, the italics for the titles) in the CSS. It would take quite a bit of time to do this, however, given the large number of citations throughout the site, so it’s not feasible for me to make this change before the end of our course.
While I realize that I am still a beginning web designer and that I have a lot left to learn in order to make more sophisticated designs, I am happy with how this project has turned out. I feel that I’ve learned and accomplished a good deal in a short period of time, especially given my long-standing technophobia! I hope that with continued practice, over time I will become more and more comfortable and savvy as a web designer. I know that the skills I’ve learned in this course will serve me well no matter how my library career develops in the future.