In recent years, many archives and institutions around the world have embraced the digital turn and have developed robust online collections to embrace an increasingly digital world. Many of these collections, however, fail to encapsulate the materiality and vibrancy of their physical objects in a digital form. This is not the case for the Manchester Digital Collections (MDC). The MDC’s homepage, richly adorned with high-quality, colorful images from cultural collections and research projects from across the University of Manchester community, provides a tantalizing glimpse at the depth and scope of the MDC’s digital resources. Like many other institutions developing digital resources since the advent of the Internet, the MDC is how the University of Manchester is “opening its doors to the digital world.” The collections were created in 2020 through a collaboration between University of Manchester researchers, Information Technology Services, the University of Manchester Library, Cultural Institutions, and external stakeholders. While driven by an audience-focused approach to its digital collections rather than a technological one, that does not mean that powerful technology does not underpin this beautifully crafted website.
The MDC’s dedication to a user-friendly experience is evident across the website as the collection’s content is laid out logically and smartly labeled to limit any confusion. A purple navigation bar sits at the top of every page featuring five simple page tabs. Hovering your mouse over the “Search” and “About” tabs produces a dropdown menu to further assist with navigating around the site. The homepage offers a wealth of avenues to explore the collections, boasting many high-resolution images and short descriptions that highlight various objects housed within the MDC. Halfway down the homepage, the “Our Latest Collections” section features the latest digitized resources added to the collections. In March 2021 alone a series of Japanese cartographical materials from the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) and works by Dante Alighieri, the thirteenth-century Italian writer known for his works like Divine Comedy, have been added to the MDC. These two additions show both the breadth of the collections and how new materials are being constantly added to the site.
Towards the bottom of the homepage, a “Trending Items” section showcases the site’s eight most popular objects. This section gives the collections another opportunity to highlight its diverse holdings and provides users with an understanding of what other site visitors are viewing. The bottom of the homepage hosts two last sections. In a friendly challenge, the “Got Some Time?” section beckons viewers to click on one of the MDC’s four largest holdings. The largest collection, the “Petrarch Collection,” boasts 83 fully digitized editions of Francesco Petrarca’s poetry and associated commentary. Altogether, the MDC has an astonishing 32,806 digitized pages of the famous fourteenth-century poet’s writings and commentaries of his work, all printed from between 1470 and c. 1650. In an adjacent section is the MDC’s most overt use of advanced technology. In an almost game-like fashion, the “Intelligent Artwork” section allows site visitors to vote on whether or not the MDC’s AI software successfully identified “particularly colorful items” from within its collections. This section provides an innovative way for users to engage with the collection’s especially vibrant objects that they otherwise might not specifically seek out. “Intelligent Artwork,” however, comes across as a seemingly forced application of advanced technology that ultimately does not necessarily enhance a user’s experience in any substantial way.
The “Browse” tab on the navigation bar generates a page that displays the MDC’s numerous holdings. Clicking on a collection takes you to a detailed overview of the collection and what objects are housed within it. Additionally, the overview page offers a brief description and thumbnail image of each item for easy navigation. While the majority of the collections deal with objects from Medieval and Early Modern Europe, the MDC also boasts a substantial number of objects originating outside of Europe, such as the collection’s almost 1,000 Persian manuscripts dating between the early thirteenth and twentieth centuries.
If a user wanted a more focused look at the MDC’s holdings they can navigate to the “Search” tab that provides them with two easy-to-use search options: “Simple Search” and “Advanced Search.” The “Simple Search” page provides users with a single search bar and a short, but useful “how-to” guide to enhance the site’s accessibility. The “Advanced Search” page provides users with several different fields to fill out to complete more specific, targeted searches. The “how-to” guide found on the “Simple Search” page, however, is absent from the advanced search page. Once a search has been executed and a detailed search list populated, a user can click on an item for a closer look. For example, a simple search of the keyword “Manchester” produces a staggering 960 results with objects ranging from a thirteenth-century Hebrew bible to twentieth-century maps of the city of Manchester. Each object-level page provides a wealth of information about the item, such as its title, date of publication, and the material used in the item’s construction. Additionally, the object-level page offers an ultra-high-quality image (or group of images if the item consists of multiple pages) of the object. Through the use of intuitive buttons, a user can critically engage with these items through high-resolution imagery.
Overall, the Manchester Digital Collections provide users with an incredibly user-friendly and accessible platform to explore an impressive array of digitized historical and cultural objects. The collection’s breadth and accessibility provide a useful resource for a broad range of users from grade-school students to experienced researchers. In particular, the site’s plethora of high-quality images allows users to critically engage with rare historical objects from anywhere in the world with a couple of clicks of a mouse. With its emphasis on usability, ultra-high-quality images, and the continuous adding of collections, the Manchester Digital Collections is an invaluable resource and will continue to be for years to come.