Is it time to retire our digital card catalogs?

Photo CC by flickr user <A HREF=

I raised a ruckus recently on a higher-ed web design listserv by suggesting that it’s time to dump the A-Z index from our websites.

You know. Those alphabetically organized Lists of “Things You May Be Looking For On Our Site”?

Why do we still make them?

Haven’t we come down the road a piece from 1997? Back then, manually building a comprehensive site index was part of the job description. How else will people find what they’re looking for?

And yet, many much more complex sites these days manage without. Look at the top sites on the web. Does Google have an A-Z index? Does Craigslist? Twitter? CNN? YouTube?

OK, one that does is Wikipedia. And it’s a doozy:

Whoa! That's a lot of index!

Given that Wikipedia is, in some ways, aping an analog counterpart which has the alphabet as its primary organizing system, having an A-Z index is understandable, even if it’s not the best way to find content on that site.

Because — and this is the point of this argument — we may call these things that display the internet¬†browsers still, but the activity of the typical user these days is less about browsing than it is about search and following links. And, given that we’re talking about a non-scalable resource — time — I’d rather spend it making pages more findable in search than in a hand-curated, printed (to screen) database.

We threw out the card catalogs in our libraries. Why can’t we do the same on our web sites?

One counter argument goes like this: We maintain incredibly complex sites for our institutions, so an A-Z index is necessary to give the visitor some grounding.

I don’t think so.

It’s entirely possible that I’m mistaken here — maybe there are good reasons for preserving the old ways of organizing for certain types of web sites — but it’s a limb I’m at peace being out on.

I moved our A-Z guide off the university web site’s home page because 1) it’s a less than optimal experience for users and 2) it’s guaranteed to rot almost instantly. Our old index has more than 1,300 entries, all manually encoded. That’s a lot of upkeep.

True, it can be automated from a CMS, but I see a list like this as something that really should be curated, if you’re going to do it at all.

Ultimately, though, the real reason we killed the A-Z list was that, in 2010, it just seems that there are better ways:

  • Search. We have Google search on our site. It’s awfully good at finding what visitors are looking for. And, when it isn’t, it’s not Google’s fault — it’s ours. Getting the “right” pages to rise to the top of search is an incredibly valuable exercise for us because it has the same benefit outside our virtual walls, in Google (and other search engines).
  • Navigation. If you do navigation right, you may find that you don’t need an A-Z list. This is your opportunity to guide your users toward what you want them to discover. It’s like an A-Z list, except it’s organized logically, not alphabetically.
  • sitemap.xml. I’m surprised that more universities aren’t using this simple but effective way to speak directly to the search engines crawling our sites. It can be 100% automated if you want or you can tweak it to your needs. But it’s a very useful tool in helping your search engine to make sure that visitors can find what you’re looking for.
  • SEO. Similarly, I’d rather spend time tuning the SEO of our site than in manually updating a public-facing site index.

So, what do you think? Is there a future for the A-Z index online?

(First photo from flickr user mamsy. Licensed through Creative Commons.)

MICA’s Brown Center was a great venue for TEDx MidAtlantic

I’ve driven past, or under it nearly a hundred times, but today was the first time I had the opportunity to spend time inside The Brown Center, the glass-curtained building with the thrusting overhang that opened on the MICA campus a few years back.

All I can say is: Wow. Modern spaces can often be cold and odd and, while The Brown Center is certainly quirky, it fits in nicely on MICA’s semi-urban campus, reflecting from the outside and providing amazing vistas from the inside.

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The building sometimes appears mirrored, sometimes clear.

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Clouds and church reflected in the glass wall.

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The view out, from upstairs.

Tom Stoppard on writing, via Scott Simon at today’s TEDx MidAtlantic

It had been years since I’d thought of this beautiful passage about writing until I heard Scott Simon quote it this morning at TEDx MidAtlantic. It comes from the amazing play The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard:

“Words… They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good any more… I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

You can see Scott Simon’s magnificent presentation here:

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(No direct link, sorry. Select his talk from the scrolling list on the left)

NaNoWriMo inspiration: Laura Lippman

Maybe it’s because we used to work for the same newspaper. Or maybe it’s because she nails the details of Baltimore in her books. Or maybe it’s because the woman can write the hell out of a book and leave you wondering how she does it.

Whatever, I’m a fanboy, a homer. So here’s summa Baltimore’s pride and joy, Laura Lippman.