The catalogues are attracting a large and diverse user base.
Visitor traffic to the digital catalogues is highly variable depending on each catalogue’s structure and integration with its parent website, but adds up to thousands of visitors per year at a minimum. Roughly half of the users are the target audience of researchers and scholars, but the catalogues are also utilized by artists, art enthusiasts, teachers, museum volunteers, and casual browsers.
Target audiences are familiar with digital catalogues, and previous concerns about the value or permanence of online resources are fading.
Our email survey of target audiences shows that 90% have browsed a digital catalogue in the past and 82% have used one in their work or studies. Study participants also expressed comfort citing digital catalogues in their work. Although they still have some concerns about the permanence of digital resources, this would not deter most from utilizing the catalogues.
Interest in specific artworks and high-quality images are strong drivers of catalogue traffic.
In a pop-up survey, 40% of current users said they came to the catalogue to research a particular object, and focus group participants of target audience members indicated similar motivations. Participants were also very concerned with finding high-resolution images of artworks and valued image-viewing tools above many of the other catalogue features.
Ensuring the catalogues are findable through academic search engines is critical for driving target audience traffic to the catalogues.
Currently, referrals account for only a small percentage of traffic to the catalogues, and participants expressed concern that these types of resources do not appear in their typical searches. Academic search engines provide guidance to publishers that could help museums increase the visibility of their catalogues.
Users value the scholarship of the catalogues, with only a few reservations.
Participants indicated high levels of trust in the museums producing these catalogues and particularly valued the inside information these institutions can provide on object provenance, conservation, and other technical matters. Some users suspect that scholarly interpretive essays contained within the catalogues may include museum biases, but these suspicions could be reduced by calling attention to the peer-review process where applicable and to clearly indicate authorship.
Digital tools can greatly enhance the user experience, provided they are easy to locate.
Participants praised tools that expand the content available to them (e.g., access to archival documents or infrared images), organize information in new ways (interactive maps, side-by-side image comparisons), and provide citation guidance. Many participants, however, did not find these tools in a quick exploration of the catalogues, so catalogues must be carefully designed to call attention to these features.
Users want all the information, but not all at once.
Participants like that the digital interface allows museums to share vast quantities of information, but careful organization is required to prevent content overload. Users want to be able to drill down into content that interests them while easily skimming past material that is less relevant.
Navigation sign posts are key to the user experience.
Many users do not enter the catalogues through their homepages, and the structures of digital catalogues are complex. Users need clear signals to help them navigate. Links between the catalogues and their parent museum websites are valued but also require indicators to tell users when they are in the catalogue and when they have left.
PDFs and downloadable images are critical to users.
While study participants were comfortable navigating the catalogues online, they also expressed a strong desire to access PDF versions of catalogue content as well as downloadable images. These features allow users to take notes offline and save images for presentations or research—tasks that are ubiquitous in the work of the target audience.
Digital catalogues are valued for their ability to incorporate new information as research advances and for their potential to reach wider audiences.
Participants liked that the catalogues could be updated as new scholarship is generated, and expressed the hope that museums would keep information current. Users also deeply appreciate that the catalogues are being offered as open access publications, putting information in the hands of wider audiences in the United States and abroad.
Users would like to see museums stretch the possibilities of digital publishing.
Participants were excited by what the catalogues have accomplished while also envisioning ambitious new directions of catalogue interactivity and connectivity. They requested tools that would allow researchers to add and curate their own information and engage in scholarly dialogue with one another. Users would also like to see museums engage with each other in an online environment by linking their resources and building tools or publications that cross institutional boundaries.