Archival Interface Design/Critique

Basic Requirements

  • Needs to be a separate PAGE on your site, NOT just a blog post (like archival silences)
  • ~800–1000 words, but the quality is far more important than the quantity
  • Must include a functional URL to the site you’re critiquing
  • Must include at least 4 screenshots of the site you’re critiquing
  • Judicious use of subheadings to delineate your main topics and themes for your critique
  • Clear, concise, and meaningful writing focused on critique over description
  • Reflect critically on what you’re doing using course readings. The point of the readings is that you can use them!


What do you see/do? (~1/3 your critique)

Like any critique or review, you should briefly explain what the interface ACTUALLY DOES:

  • Provide the BRIEFEST POSSIBLE summary of the main features / functionality of archival access
  • How accessible does the site make the sources?
  • How easy is it to learn more about the sources AND their CONTEXT?
  • Briefly note aspects that work well and existing aspects that could use some tweaks (and in both cases, WHY!)

What’s behind the curtain? (~2/3 your critique)

After addressing the basic questions above, provide an in-depth critique of the site that tries to understand and make clear for your reader what’s NOT apparent from the interface itself. This is where you really get to show off what you’ve learned from the readings.

Here are some questions to consider, but you should think about them holistically as you formulate and draft your critique. You may find it easier to just write your own essay than to step through the questions. Either way is fine as long as you’re offering an insightful critique grounded in the readings.

  • Do you get a sense what archival material exists and what doesn’t?
  • What are you NOT seeing? What are the silences?
  • What kinds of discovery or interpretation does the interface ENABLE?
  • What kinds of discovery or interpretation does the interface RESIST?
  • What would a more generous interface look like? What kinds of concepts from Whitelaw would be useful for your site? Use your imagination and don’t worry if it’s technically possible.


As much as possible, incorporate relevant readings from the last month to guide your critique—yes in fact there was a reason we read all those! The whole point here is to APPLY the readings so far. All the theory we’ve discussed is well and good, but it only matters to the extent it can be put into practice. Critique is an ideal way to do that.


  • The assignment is NOT JUST TO DO a critique (which you could have done before the course started), but to write an INFORMED critique BASED ON THE READINGS and LECTURES and what they say about archival power, selection, context, visibility, silence, organization, interfaces and so on. Keep these broad THEMES central in your mind, not font size and color palettes.
  • The point of the critique is to SHOW HOW the interface acts as a source of archival power. We’ve read enough already to know it DOES act as a source of power, so you’re not trying to make that point. That’s our STARTING point.
  • Avoid writing a ‘process narrative’—that is, a description of “First I clicked this, then I clicked that, but it didn’t work, so I clicked something else.” Nobody cares what you clicked on.
  • Instead, organize your critiques by the particular points you want to make. This helps you avoid a rambling or process-narrative critique.
  • Make sure your comments are not just pure description but a commentary or critique with some description attached to it.
    • BAD Example: The navigation bar has tabs for X, Y, Z, A, B. This allows the user to click directly to the the section most relevant to them. If you want to browse the collection, you have to click X, then, item 1, then pick a category, so browsing the collection is not super easy.
    • GOOD example: The standard navigation bar does not easily facilitate browsing the collection.
  • Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Whatever your particular experience exploring the interface may have been, you should always remember that people reading your review are looking for the big picture (the forest), not particular details (the trees). In more concrete terms, if someone asks you if a movie is good or not, you don’t ramble on for 15 minutes about the lighting in one 5 second scene (unless you’re a lighting designer, maybe). Think about the interface as a whole!