Participating in Search Design: A Study of George Thomason's English Newsbooks

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: History


This project aims to understand how search is used within humanities research methodology and to use this knowledge in the design of better search interfaces for online resources which genuinely meet the needs of the research community. Data searching is now a core activity within humanities research and, given the vast evidence base which is now available to scholars in a digital form, the design of search has a significant impact on research results. However, the research community is rarely consulted when content providers are designing online resources and there tends to be an assumption that the search needs of humanities research are the same as those for other disciplines or non-academic knowledge gathering activities. This project will survey current practices in order to establish existing search methodologies and their deficiencies before using this knowledge to design a user interface for our test dataset and evaluate its impact on research in the field. The project will involve collaboration between the University's departments of History, English and Sociological Studies, the Humanities Research Institute and the content provider ProQuest. The test dataset will be approximately 50,000 pages of sixteenth-century newsbooks by George Thomason, currently only available as digitised images via ProQuest's EEBO. Test research questions for addressing the potential impact of the search design will revolve around understanding the role of newsbooks as the drivers of community formation. The project will explore the use of Participatory Design in developing search tools for the arts and humanities community. The aim of this methodology is to ensure that the design of ICT meets the needs of users by involving users in the design process and the ideal outcome of this project is to develop a test research resource which genuinely meets the needs of its users.

Conventional technical development processes often involves consulting users at an early stage (but after data creation) in order to ascertain requirements and then conducting user testing towards the end of the development cycle. The problem with this approach is that the user's involvement is reactive and not immersive or creative and, as such, the technical development can quickly become divorced from the user's needs. By contrast, our Participatory Design methodology will explore the improvement of search through the following development process:

1. A landscape survey of current search practices within arts and humanities research methodology.

2. Development of a search interface for our test dataset using a Design Group which includes users throughout the entire development cycle.

3. Final evaluation of the search interface using the test research questions.

The outputs from the research will be as follows:

1. A White Paper will document current research practices and search needs, identify the impact of current search design upon research outcomes and make recommendations for improving access to online resources through better search design.

2. An edited volume of essays on Thomason's Newsbooks will presents new research contributed by the participants of the Design Group.

3. A peer-reviewed article will explore the methodological implications of good and bad search design for humanities research.

4. A peer-reviewed article will reflect on the merits of Participatory Design as a methodology for the digital content sectors.

5. A new interface will provide full-text, searching of 50,000 pages of Newsbooks within ProQuest's EEBO.

There are two speculative aspects to the proposed research:

1. The acquisition of knowledge about search use within humanities research methodology and recommendations for improvement. We do not know the answers yet.

2. The use of a Participatory Design methodology in developing better search. This is a new methodogical approach and we cannot guarantee that it will result in a better search interface.

Planned Impact

The proposed project will have both academic and economic impact. Improved access to the George Thomason's collection of seventeenth-century newsbooks will have a direct academic impact for researchers and students of early modern English politics and culture and the history of the popular press, in the disciplines of English Language, English Literature, History, Journalism and Politics. A further direct academic impact will occur in Sociological Studies in that researchers and students who study co-production, open innovation, situated innovation and the societal impact of new media will have an important test case for the value of Participatory Design within the HE research process.

Understanding search methodology and improving search design should have an indirect academic impact across all humanities subject domains at HE level, including research funding bodies, the peer review college and potential applicants for research funding.

There should be direct economic impact for those who fund the creation of and access to online research resources such as research councils as well as those who create and provide access to online research resources such as commercial content providers (e.g. ProQuest and Gale Cengage). The project proposes to develop the knowledge and methodology which should enable these organisations to deliver resources which are more useful to users and consequently acquire more academic and economic value from their investment. Indirectly, this understanding of search process and better search design should inform other types of online knowledge providers, such as genealogical websites, institutional repositories and organisations involved in providing access to scientific data.


10 25 50
Description The project developed a digital resource alongside the design of the search interface, the latter shaped by end-users, who participated in the design of the interface and decisions about the development of the source. It has produced an excellent user-interface, and the findings are of general interest in search design. The resource itself is also valuable, although the sample size and permissions issues have reduced that value somewhat.
Exploitation Route The participant search design methodology is relevant to many potential user communities. The digital resources which has been developed is also of potentially very wide use, but would require additional investment to maximise this potential--broadening the sample size,.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections