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Interactive Annual 14:

The National Archives Experience— Digital Vaults

Launch Live Site

“A wonderful exploratory interface on top of a sophisticated application. Great functionality and highly approachable.” —Michael Lebowitz

“A great balance of serendipitous sifting and searching of the national archives.” —Britt Miura

Overview: The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is an independent agency of the federal government charged with preserving government and historical records and increasing public access to them. This portal into the heart of the National Archives puts visual records front and center. It features a record-centric collection—a single record is the focus and all similarly tagged records spiral out around it—that guides visitors along pathways of connected documents, photographs and media. The stories change based on the unexpected ways that visitors browse and explore the collection.

  • For a year-and-a-half, ten studio members worked on the concept, design and development.
  • Currently, the site contains over 1,200 records.
  • Created in PHP/Symfony and Flash CS3/Flex, the backend uses an Oracle database.

Comments by Brad Johnson and Jennifer Young:

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
“The motivation behind the navigation interface was to create a visual concept that was far removed from a traditional drill-down, taxonomical solution, one that would reward people’s curiosity and endorse the notion that you don’t have to be looking for something specific and that it is ok to just explore. We knew that we wanted to avoid anything resembling a conventional search engine or list. We also didn’t want it to be complex and application-like. And, we wanted to keep the experience as intuitive and natural to the user as possible and for the user to learn how to use the site instinctually.

“The biggest challenge was to bring form and structure to something so unconventional. We initially wanted to group records around the center randomly. But after some experimentation and modeling, we landed on a variation on the phyllotaxis spiral (the elegant spiral formation in which sunflowers and pinecones grow) that proved to be a simple and flexible lattice on which to organize our records.

“Through iterative concepting and wireframing, we found a way to present the tag-based navigation for the site. On the simplest level, records that share more tags are visually available in a way that privileges them. On a more complex level, visitors can further shape the visualization by filtering the collection by tags, time and media type. Visitors can also narrow results by choosing which tags are active in a persistent menu. And, to navigate a large record set, a ‘throttle’ control allows easy movement forward and backward through the web of records.”

Brad Johnson, creative director
Christian Bannister/Dave Rau, designers
Jeremy Brown/Michael Godfrey/Thomas Wester, programmers
Jennifer Young, producer
Erica Dillon/Melissa Paugh, production assistants
Julie Beeler, studio director
Erica Dillon/Melissa Paugh, quality assurance
Second Story Interactive Studios (Portland, OR), project design and development
Suzanne Adamko, Center for the National Archives Experience/Thora Colot, Foundation for the National
Archives/Franck Cordes, Foundation for the National Archives/Marvin Pinkert, Center for the National Archives Experience, clients