the new harpers.org 04.11.2007, 3:02 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Harper's has a new web concept designed by Paul Ford of F Train. History bears heavily on the refurbished site, almost overwhelmingly -- especially compared to the stripped-down affair that preceded it. But considering that Harper's has a more than ordinary amount of history to cart around -- at 157 years, it's the oldest general interest monthly in the United States -- it makes sense that Ford and the editors had time on the brain. A journal that has published continuously since before the Civil War, on through Reconstruction, the Gilded Age, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, civil rights, the 60s, the Cold War, right up to the present carries a hefty chunk of the national memory -- and a lot of baggage, good and bad. So it's fitting that the new design is packed with dates, inviting readers to dig into the past while also surveying the present. I can't think of another news site in which the archives mingle so promiscuously with the front page spread. The result is a site that feels as much like a library as a periodical.
Directly beneath the title banner and above stories from the current issue is a highly compressed archive navigation, three rows tall. On the top row, Harper's 16 decades fan out from left to right. Below them are the ten years of a given decade. Below that, the twelve months of a given year. Thus, every issue of Harper's ever printed is just three clicks away. Of course, you need a subscription to view most of the content. (A hint, though: articles between the 1850 debut issue and 1899 are all available for free at the website of Cornell's Making of America project, which undertook the task of scanning the first half-century's worth of Harper's.)
Clearly, the editors have been thinking a great deal about how to use the web to bring Harper's' long, winding paper trail into the light and into use. The new design may be a little over-freighted, but shine light it does. By placing current events in such close proximity with the past, things are nested in a historical context -- a refreshing expansion of scope next to the perpetual present of the 24-hour news cycle. Already there are a few features that help connect the dots. One is "topic pages" that allow readers to track particular subjects through the archive. Take a look, for example, at this trail of links for "South Africa":
- 4 Images from 1983 to 2001
- 67 Articles from 1850 to 2007
- 2 Cartoons from 1985
- 44 Events from 2000 to 2007
- 10 Facts from 1999 to 2006
- 4 Stories from 1888 to 1983
- 2 Jokes from 1881 to 1912
- 4 Photographs from 1987 to 2001
- 1 Poem from 1883
- 6 Reviews from 1887 to 2005
A smart next step would be to let readers trace, tag and document their own research trails and share those with other readers. This could be an added incentive for a new generation of Harper's subscribers: access not only to an invaluable historical archive but to a social architecture in which communities and individuals could interpret that archive and bring it into conversation with the contemporary.
Eddie A. Tejeda on April 12, 2007 12:16 AM:
There really aren't any good interfaces for representing large amounts of data through time, and the website's clutter is evidence of that. There is a cool tag cloud that gives us a small taste on what could be done with time. But nothing exists that can be used in a large scale.
I think Harper's website has the potential to make us to reconsider the role of a magazine and the way we engage with them in the digital age, and not just for Harpers or massive collections. While magazines have historically been self-contained published works, often with clearly stated views (much more so than newspapers), I think if people engage with them as archives of ideas, we could also see a change in the way magazines see themselves.
The magazine form has always had problems: it's strict periodic (monthlies, weeklies, etc) format is an artifact of the print form. I think this redesign shows that we might need to reconsider magazines as vessels that are filled with ideas; connected, but not bound to time. And since these vessels provide all the content all the time, then we can imagine time as the thing you "flip through" (as opposed to pages) and not a special mode of browsing. This has always been the case for researchers, who've used bound magazines in libraries... but this could be the way all engage a magazine.
I recently heard an interesting discussion between Paul Glastris of The Washington Monthly and Franklin Foer of The New Republic on the direction that their magazines were taking. The consensus they came to was that blogs stripped away their need to cover timely topics and have allowed them to do what they've always done best: long narratives.
This is not really that new of an idea. I mean we can see things like The Complete New Yorker on CD-ROM, which provide a collection of all their work. But what I think is significant here is that the default unit in which we engage with a magazine could change from issues, to just one unit: the magazine.
Paul Ford on April 12, 2007 3:29 AM:
"A smart next step would be to let readers trace, tag and document their own research trails and share those with other readers."
If we wait a couple of years some project like Google Notebook or Piggybank or Del.icio.us should be far enough along that users can do all the tagging and research-trail-marking they need to do. Hopefully we'd be able to enable that: expose our taxonomy, use unique IDs, share bibliographic data, etc. Ideally we'd import the data they create, with their permission, and find ways to use it ourselves. But I can't imagine a world where reader tools are limited to a single site; we'd probably do better to focus on improving the breadth and depth of search. (As to the busy layout--yep. I'll adapt it to the readers over time, once I figure out what they're up to.)