Reviewed August 2020
Michele Jennings, Art Librarian
Ohio University Libraries
The Letterform Online Archive is a freely available collection of digitized documents and artifacts from the Letterform Archive, a nonprofit founded by Rob Saunders in 2015 in San Francisco. The basis of the Archive, some 60,000 objects spanning the history of typography and graphic design, includes periodicals, posters, books, ephemera, typeface specimens, and a reference library. Their growing Online Archive, made available to the public in April 2020, currently includes some 1,500 digitized objects. As a resource made about, by, and for graphic designers, it’s important to note that the look and feel of the Online Archive do not disappoint, and the refreshingly clean landing page belies the intentions of its creators. As a physical collection, the Letterform Archive promotes discovery of typographic history through serendipity, and the randomized selection of digitized surrogates is clearly intended to serve much the same purpose.
For users who know their purpose upon entering the Online Archive, however, they can choose to search either using keywords or filters derived from the metadata schema and custom-built vocabulary designed specially for works of graphic design. Letterform Archive librarians found that existing vocabularies for describing objects in museums and libraries such as Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus did not adequately cover graphic design, or match designers’ vocabularies as well as they did artists’ or architects’. As a resource created explicitly for designers, the VRA Core and MARC-based structure of the metadata is tailored to the audience, such as prioritizing the cover designer or typesetter before the author of a book in the collection.
Most unique to the Online Archive’s user experience is its scaled display of results, which uses physical metadata to show results in proportional size to each other. While the resolution of every image is high enough to provide remarkable detail upon zooming in, the image view does not allow for zooming in at a progression (e.g., 25%, then 50%, and so on) and images do not appear to be downloadable. Perhaps reflecting the ongoing development of the Online Archive and the priority placed on describing its contents as graphic design artifacts, most objects seem to lack OCR or written transcripts. Similarly, the lack of description or alt-text in some pages found in compound objects would be problematic for users with screen readers.
The Letterform Online Archive, perhaps unsurprisingly, showcases design--beautifully executed and innovative in its ability to serve its audience’s needs and expectations. And although Letterform Archive has published information about the development of its metadata schema and the design process of the interface, these focus more on the goals and intentions of the creators but left many more technical questions unanswered--are the images IIIF compatible? Are rights statements from RightsStatement.org? What does the structure of their in-house graphic design vocabulary look like? Can users request downloads of items in the collection? Are there plans for accessibility improvements? It’s undeniable, though, that the decisions made have created an innovative user experience and data structure that services the primacy of the object and the information needs and environment of its audience. As digitization continues, additional description and other improvements will help to make more of this unique and valuable collection accessible to all users.