Why are academic websites so ugly?
This post is adapted from a May 2019 post on HASTAC’s blog.
I explore scholarly websites a lot in my work — especially archives. I look through digital scans and metadata in search of weird moments in print history, but it is rarely all that fun. Sidebars seem to come out of nowhere, search engines return poor results, and long jargon-filled explanations overwhelm the screen. I have to spend my time searching for very specific items, rather than enjoying the sense of open-ended discovery every academic is supposed to be familiar with — the experience that comes along with research in physical archives where we can wander down long rows of books that smell like old paper and move beneath our fingers.
I’ve wondered why we often accept that digital discovery is less tactile and enjoyable. Why do we divorce the aesthetic experience of physical research in archives from the process of research on and through computers? In other words, why are academic websites so ugly?
My working theory is that the problem started way back in the mid-19th century with rapid industrial development, when people began to see artistry as something derived from the human mind and machines as the enemy of that process. As a result, we often see things made by machines as “ugly” and don’t question that it should be that way.
We should pay attention to aesthetics when making digital scholarly websites, rather than just focusing on what is in them. We should see the aesthetic and interactive elements of any research environment as inextricably linked to the process and product of what is produced through it. We should embrace the experience of digital research as providing new possibilities unavailable in research in physical spaces — like the ability to get more (and faster) information about what we’re viewing. But we should also be able to enjoy it just as much as we would enjoy a day in the library..