First Monday

AnthroSource: Designing a portal for anthropologists by Bonnie Nardi, Michael Adams, Melody Chu, Shiraz Khan, John Lai, and Elsy Lao

This paper investigates the information needs of anthropologists to inform the design of a portal, AnthroSource. AnthroSource will digitize the publications of the American Anthropological Association and provide services for anthropologists and others who use anthropological materials.


What do anthropologists want?
Sample and methods
Additional considerations





As in many disciplines, anthropology is turning to electronic publication of its journals to continue affordable publication. Electronic publication not only expands access to scholarly literature in anthropology, it supports the development of new, less costly forms of digital communications to serve the needs of anthropological scholarship, teaching, and practice. The shift to electronic publication creates the opportunity to provide both content and services for the contemporary anthropologist.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is the largest group of anthropologists in the world, with over 11,000 members. The AAA is partnering with the University of California Press to produce AAA journals and newsletters online. Beginning in January, 2005, AnthroSource, an electronic portal, will be the gateway to 11 of the AAA publications, available by subscription to libraries, institutions, and AAA members. By 2007, 19 of the AAA’s peer–reviewed publications and many of its newsletters and bulletins will be added to the AnthroSource institutional subscription package.

Digital publication will allow greater dissemination of AAA publications worldwide. As the Association said,

The AAA is uniquely positioned as sponsor, organizer and catalyst for the creation of this universal portal because it is the largest professional society of anthropologists and the trustee and steward of much of the historic record of anthropological work the last century. [ 1]

Bill Davis, Executive Director, added, "AnthroSource is the most significant communications initiative undertaken by the AAA since its founding in 1902 ... It will exponentially expand access by scholars and the public to the most important work produced in anthropology" (AAA AnthroSource Press release, 2003). Other reasons for the development of AnthroSource were concern with preserving anthropological materials and providing access to documents that are not peer–reviewed, such as archaeological site reports, course syllabi, and keynote speeches (American Anthropological Association, 2003).

AnthroSource’s audience includes anthropologists, other academics, academic libraries, indigenous research groups, non–governmental organizations, teachers, community colleges and smaller colleges without access to large libraries, and the public at large.

AnthroSource is funded by a three–year $756,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for one–time development costs. In addition, more than $1 million from AAA’s investment portfolio is being spent. AnthroSource is intended to operate on a self–sustaining financial basis within four years of service launch through institutional subscriptions and member dues revenue.

Plans for AnthroSource have been underway for about three years. Implementation of AnthroSource began in January, 2004. Documents are full text, delivered in PDF+. Legacy content (going back 100 years) for AAA’s 29 publications through 2003 will be available on AnthroSource for the 2005 subscription year. This is a significant change for scholars seeking searchable documents, since JSTOR has a seven–year window for the AAA’s publications (i.e., the last seven years are not online at any given time).



What do anthropologists want?

Little research had been done to discover anthropologists’ preferences and needs for a portal. While there are other audiences for AnthroSource, this is a core audience. In this paper we report the results of an ethnographic study of anthropologists’ information needs. Based on our findings, we make design recommendations for the development of the AnthroSource portal. AnthroSource is expected to be a model for other portals in the social sciences and humanities, so its design has implications beyond anthropology.

Figure 1: Anthropology students at work.

In Bonnie Nardi’s Winter Quarter 2004 Social Analysis of Computing undergraduate class at the University of California Irvine, students interviewed local anthropologists to find out what they would like in a portal. The students produced interview summaries, and in some cases, full transcripts of the interviews. Nardi is an anthropologist and member of the AAA AnthroSource Steering Committee. The other authors were undergraduates in the class who continued the research during the Spring Quarter, 2004 in independent studies. The students’ strong technical and design skills provided many further ideas based on what we learned in the interviews.

We found that anthropologists desire a portal that provides greater context for interpreting anthropological materials, an assessment of credibility of sources and a place to build community.

The interview transcripts and summaries comprise the data upon which the findings in the paper are based. The independent study students also conducted additional key informant interviews with anthropologists and librarians. This paper outlines a design for a portal that we believe would successfully meet the needs of anthropologists and those interested in anthropological materials. We encourage more research on anthropologists’ information needs and preferences, but as the portal is now under development, we feel some urgency about documenting what we have learned and opening up discussion about the portal based on what we know so far. In a nutshell, we found that anthropologists desire a portal that provides greater context for interpreting anthropological materials, an assessment of credibility of sources and a place to build community.



Sample and methods

The class conducted 58 interviews. Most were with faculty and students at the University of California, Irvine Department of Anthropology. The student researchers worked in pairs, conducting face–to–face interviews with each informant for about an hour. Most interviews were in the informant’s workspace, dorm room, or in the library. A second follow–up interview took about an hour. Follow–ups were conducted face–to–face, over the phone, or in one instance, through an instant messaging conversation. Photographs were taken to illustrate informants’ working environment.

Figure 2: Anthropology office space.

The questions included a focus on informants’ Internet use, their suggestions for the portal, and general information needs and concerns. A core set of questions guided the interviews:

  1. How do you work with information when writing a paper/preparing a grant proposal/preparing a new course/updating an existing course/preparing for fieldwork/conducting service work/searching for a job/updating yourself on developments in your field?
  2. What would you like us to know about paper vs. online sources?
  3. What technologies and services would you like to see in AnthroSource?

Probe questions were asked as appropriate during the interview.

Among the 106 informants contacted for an interview, 58 responded and were interviewed. (Being anthropologists, many were away conducting field research.) Tables 1 and 2 show the breakdown of the sample. While the majority of the UC Irvine informants were cultural anthropologists, there were a handful from related fields, including a sociologist, a classics professor, and anthropologists in Women’s Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, East Asian Studies, Criminology, and Linguistics. A few informants were from outside of UC Irvine, including two consulting anthropologists, and a professor and two lecturers from UCLA.

Description of sampleNumber
Professors 17
Graduate students 17
Undergraduate students 16
Other 8
Total informants 58

Table 1: Census of sample.


Description of sampleNumber
Undergraduate students 16
Graduate students 17
Assistant professors 4
Associate professors 4
Full professors 6
Emeritus professors 3
Lecturers 4
Research associates 1
Consulting athropologists 2
Other 1
Total informants 58

Table 2: Another perspective on the sample.

In the next section we discuss findings from the interview study, detailing anthropologists’ preferences and needs for a portal. In the final section we consider additional services the portal could provide, based on our interpretation of the interview results.




In the interviews, we asked anthropologists to reflect on AnthroSource as a complete portal, not simply a repository for AAA publications. While development of such a portal will take time, we believe our findings suggest a path for evolution of the design of AnthroSource as it grows. We considered the work practices of anthropologists holistically, not simply their need for AAA publications.

Expanded repository

A key issue for anthropologists in our sample was the need for publications beyond AAA publications. Rather than skipping from site to site to find sources, anthropologists would like what we call a "one–stop Internet spot." For instance, many anthropologists conduct their fieldwork in other countries, which leads them to area and regional literature beyond what the AAA provides. Access to such literature through AnthroSource would be desirable. Full text may not be required, but links to relevant sites would ease the search process. As one graduate student said, "I [would like] one place where you can search most of the literature. It would be helpful to see what has been published. It would be nice if it had a comprehensive index, even if it didn’t have all the things there."

Literature beyond AAA publications may include smaller journals with specialized information. One professor said, "The closer I get to anthropology, the smaller and smaller amount of [data] is available." Because anthropologists may study obscure customs of small groups, the professor meant he needed access to rare, specialized data.

In the same vein, our informants requested access to interdisciplinary research, especially in the social sciences and humanities. One faculty member said, "I mean anthropologists are between humanities and the social sciences, right? And so it’s frustrating because you don’t know where to go to find articles. I would really appreciate a database that puts all those things together."

AnthroSource should enable anthropologists to easily locate literature in a broad range of topics. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo! are available for quick reference, but as one professor pointed out, "Google is not an academic library database."


Our informants depended heavily on online search tools. All agreed that it was important to have a reliable search engine that allowed them to search in a coherent way. But there was a difference of opinion when it came to what kind of search tool would be the most helpful. Some informants emphasized simplicity while others focused on advanced search.

About half the sample preferred a simple, straightforward approach. They favored Google because the search results are a click away. They considered Google an ideal model for AnthroSource’s own search tool. One professor enthusiastically proclaimed, "Google is god." Another said, "I go to Google and Google it, and I find all kinds of fascinating new stuff. It brings me up to date."

Others were interested in a more powerful and advanced search engine. They liked a subscription–based Web site called Current Contents, available through the UC Irvine Library Web site. One professor noted:

"Current Contents is the section for most of us [anthropologists]. It is the one we use a lot. What Current Contents allows you to do is very detailed searches, you can do sub–searches of searches, etc. For finding scholarly stuff, Current Contents is the number one thing. These articles might also be on Melvyl [a University of California database], but Current Contents offers a better searching mechanism."

Current Contents allows users to merge or search within a set of results [ 2]. Literatum, an electronic publication service delivered by Atypon, UC Press’s technology partner, features a similar "who–what–how model" of content organization. This model allows for customized definition of content collections which can be linked to specific user groups.

Once a search has been conducted, the results must be returned to the user. Google lacks the depth some informants desired. When a user conducts a search on Google, they receive results with links to each Web site, a short excerpt of where their keywords appear in the site, and a link to similar Web sites. In order to ascertain whether a particular Web site is relevant, the user must actually go to the site and assess it. This process can be tedious and takes time.

A better search engine would provide greater context for the each result including keywords, an abstract of papers, citation ratings, number of downloads, short book reviews, reader comments, a very brief (perhaps one sentence) bio of the author(s), a small relevant image, and other contextualizing information that would provide more clues as to the relevance of the result.

Providing more information with each search result would ease a problem expressed by undergraduate and graduate students, i.e., assessing credibility of sources. Many students were confused about which were the key sources they should be citing. Some biographical information on authors would provide useful clues. Book reviews and reader comments would help students identify seminal articles from marginal ones. While such a process is always somewhat subjective, the need for assessing credibility recurred in the student interviews. As one graduate student said,

"We cite people and we rely on information heavily, and we don’t want to look like fools ... . Anybody can just write whatever they want and post it on the Internet."

A portal provides an opportunity to supply additional context about publications so that readers have a greater appreciation for how a publication fits into the larger scholarly community, and to help separating the wheat from the chaff on the Internet.

Grey literature

Some anthropologists expressed an interest in selected forms of "grey literature." Information such as white papers, unpublished manuscripts, syllabi, and keynote speeches are not reviewed and edited in official channels, but they can expose people to new ideas, help in preparing courses, and aid in research. One professor said, "AnthroSource should allow for different kinds of publications. Everything should not have to go through UC Press, which requires journal level work. Informal newsletters, discussion groups, and [subgroup] chats [would be valuable]." Many professors said that they planned new courses and updated existing courses by referring to syllabi of well–known professors or well known programs.

Although the potential value of grey literature is significant, its raises concerns about credibility. Simply distributing grey literature and hoping for the best is not an optimal strategy. The literature should be carefully selected. One graduate student said she wanted "Quality over quantity." Another said, "I just don’t trust work that’s just published out there. It’s gotta be from a university or it’s gotta be in a journal. Otherwise, I don’t accept it." The contextualizing information mentioned above is needed for grey literature. Not just students, but professional anthropologists and other readers, would be served by getting background on what they were reading.


Many anthropologists in our sample pointed to the need for multimedia data available from the portal. They noted that photographs, video, and audio recordings engage readers, allowing them to fully experience what authors are trying to describe. One professor said:

"You see in linguistic anthropology, you sometimes have all these crazy markers in typographic script, which is very hard to explain [how words sound, what they mean] using words, but when anthropologists can actually hear an example through AnthroSource ... [it] is really powerful and can open up whole new dimensions ..."

A graduate student who studied fashion used images extensively. Realizing the difficulty in explaining the way a piece of cloth hangs on a body, or the brilliance of a color, he said he would rather show readers instead of inadequately describe his data. Most readers would find such images fascinating. For decades anthropologists have collected rich audio and visual data that could not be widely distributed. With digital publication, access to multimedia materials will be possible.

"Make it simple. We’re smart, but not that smart."

We believe multimedia is a high priority for AnthroSource in two ways. First, articles in journals, such as the American Anthropologist, should allow for sound and images. Second, databases of media data should also be a service handled through the portal. This would ensure preservation of unique data and allow selective access to media files for researchers with appropriate permissions to access the data.


Our informants expressed the desire for a community in which they could easily contact one another and exchange ideas. The linguist in our study pointed to as an exemplary Web site promoting community. In addition to access to publications, linguists can search for jobs, find out about conferences and events of interest, participate in chats, join listservs, learn about new books, or ask a linguist a question. Linguistlist has developed a community that is entirely responsible for creating, maintaining, funding, and upgrading the site. Volunteers use their free time to maintain the site. While this is not the AnthroSource model, it does suggest how a culture of open source development may influence the development of AnthroSource over time. Linguistlist does not run entirely for free, even with volunteer labor. It has thousands of paid subscribers supporting the site. Founded in 1990, it shows how the creation of a community can sustain a Web site. Community and economic sustainability are a two–way street. While the purpose of a site such as AnthroSource is to foster community, that community can make the site itself possible as community members’ subscriptions support the site.

One way to promote community with AnthroSource is to have a comprehensive directory of anthropologists, as suggested by some of our informants. The current AAA Web site has a limited directory. A good addition to AnthroSource would be a directory of profiles — not necessarily for contact information, but for background on fellow anthropologists. The most important parts of the profile would describe an anthropologist’s interests, goals, publications, awards, and other career–defining information. A link to a personal Web site might accomplish much the same thing, but a sleeker directory approach, with only portions of a personal Web site, would provide the needed information in a format more efficient for the reader. Of course posting such information would be completely voluntary, a gift to the community.

The user experience

Many of our informants, from novice Internet users to tech savvy veterans, emphasized how important it is to have an easily navigable Web site. One graduate student put it succinctly: "Make it simple. We’re smart, but not that smart." Another graduate student said, "If it’s not user–friendly, I’m not going to use it." These comments are entirely reasonable. After all, the layout of the Web site is the first thing that a user sees. Unfortunately, it is often the last thing developers attend to (Norman, 1998; Johnson, 2002). A regular plan for user testing AnthroSource as it develops is essential to the success of the site. Bill Davis set evaluation as a goal for AnthroSource, stating that it should be "guided and informed by a process of continuous evaluation to stay on track with user needs" [ 3].

Figure 3: A Web site featuring a poor choice of font colors.

Some informants expressed their concern with unsatisfactory user experiences by giving examples of badly designed Web sites. They were bothered by poor color and font selections, uninformative or misleading subject headings, and confusing menu selections. A professor pointed to the design of the site in Figure 3 as an example of a non user–friendly site. The light–blue text on a white background makes the site difficult to read. Another informant gave the site in Figure 4 as an example of a links–intensive site that hinders site navigation because users cannot easily find what they want.

Figure 4: A Web site featuring unreadable links.

Some informants liked the idea of ensuring user friendliness through customization that would allow them to configure individual preferences. For instance, the user could change the colors and fonts of the site to make it more readable on his or her computer screen and with respect to level of visual acuity. One informant suggested quick keys and customized layout.



Additional considerations

In this section we discuss ideas for the future of AnthroSource that were not mentioned directly in the interviews, but which flow from informants’ preferences and needs.

Many informants mentioned that they like because it provides information on products similar to the one the user is considering. Every product sells has a link to similar items that other users viewed or purchased after selecting the item under consideration. For AnthroSource, a link to similar documents viewed by other users would be useful. Such links raise privacy issues of collecting the data necessary to establish sets of similar articles. These issues would have to be discussed and agreed upon in the anthropological community. Sponsored links such as those found in Google and might also come up for discussion.

Our informants praised because it offers customer reviews for every product. AnthroSource could allow users to write reviews on any document in its database. These reviews would require oversight, at least in some cases, so that inappropriate reviews would not be posted. Such reviews would meet the need for contextualizing anthropological publications.

As grey literature accumulates in a database, it becomes more difficult to find credible materials. AnthroSource could provide a form of "peer feedback" on grey literature in which users send comments or ratings on materials they have used. These comments and materials could be made available so that others would have some idea of the value of a lengthy set of PowerPoint slides, a video clip, or a course syllabus. Such feedback is very much in the spirit of the Internet. Everything from books to hotels to refrigerators are evaluated by those who have used them. Web sites such as have forums in which serious political ideas are debated. Forum posts are rated by readers. The creators of the site then use the ratings to decide which issues are important to their members, as well as to assess the rhetoric that seems to best express contributors’ ideas. Authors as well as readers might find such feedback on their own grey literature contributions interesting and useful.

AnthroSource documents are distributed as PDF+ searchable full text files. Anthropologists in our sample were comfortable and familiar with this format. However, in the future, more flexibility of layout might be desirable. Some of our informants wanted documents to appear on screen just as they appear in the current paper journals or newsletters. Others wanted the ability to modify layout. For example, one informant disliked scrolling to read columns and preferred page–wide blocks of text. There is no reason such preferences could not be accommodated with the flexibility of digital media.

As noted, hosting multimedia files could be a valuable resource for AnthroSource. While server space is inexpensive, the cost of bandwidth for distribution must be considered. AnthroSource could keep a copy of files on its own servers and limit direct distribution by number of uploads per file at any given time. If a large number of clients attempted to download a file at the same time, peer clients could help distribute the file, keeping the load on AnthroSource servers light.

Another form of peer feedback could be the posting of works–in–progress. By allowing readers to provide feedback to authors prior to the formal peer review process, the quality of work could be enhanced. Presumably publication will be faster when everything is digital, so finding ways to get quick quality feedback will be desirable.

There are of course concerns about revealing unpublished work, so access controls would be useful [ 4]. Users could identify individuals or groups from whom they wish to receive feedback. Readers will gain by learning about current work in their field.

Users who download the same articles might want to discuss them. Chats could be set up between such users. Chats would promote community, one of the key concerns of our informants. Newsgroups and listservs could also be maintained with relatively little effort.

An important opportunity for AnthroSource is to expand its reach into communities of non–academic anthropologists. While it is not clear how many non–academic anthropologists there are, they are an important part of the anthropological community. In a recent report on a "visioning session" at the AAA, non–academic anthropologists were identified as underserved by the AAA. The report stated, "Action should be taken to integrate non–academically employed anthropologists more fully into the AAA — both as a matter of simple fairness, and because they often have a superior understanding of current changes, change potentials and opportunities" (Textor, 2004).

Ultimately, AnthroSource is intended to address this audience’s needs. We interviewed two consulting anthropologists. They still belong to the AAA, but for sentimental reasons. Neither believed it offered services tailored to their needs. One noted that the very structure of the AAA — into groups reflecting academic interests — works against non–academic anthropologists. This anthropologist suggested that AnthroSource be careful not to evolve in a way that mirrors existing AAA subgroups too closely.

An important form of grey literature that could serve consulting anthropologists is technical reports and white papers by anthropologists and others that report work for organizations such as the United Nations, USAID, the World Bank and other international non–governmental organizations. The Mellon proposal identified such reports as potentially part of AnthroSource.

While the AAA Web site currently provides useful job listings, identified by as valuable by the anthropologists in our sample, AnthroSource could expand the offerings. Internships, consulting opportunities, and other work for anthropologists should be listed. Non–academic anthropologists would have a greater connection to the AAA with this service. Organizations seeking to employ an anthropologist could be confident in finding AAA members for their work. In the future, models such as should be considered. At applicants specify the type and field of their desired job to view a list of employers. Employers can immediately refer to replying applicants’ information and determine whether an applicant is suitable for their needs. Much of the process is handled online. Information on grants and scholarships should also be part of AnthroSource. Such information, along with job postings, will help make AnthroSource a one–stop Internet spot.

An event calendar beyond AAA events would be valuable. For each event, a calendar could provide information on significant dates and opportunities for involvement. Information on these events would come from members.

A personalized login to AnthroSource would to allow users to customize fonts, colors and layout, as mentioned, to refer to saved searches, to customize the calendar, to read announcements on topics of interest, to access data files (if Web hosting is provided), to join chats of interest, and other activities, which will vary from user to user. We believe such personalization will increase member loyalty to AnthroSource.

As AnthroSource gets more complex, a tutorial explaining its functionality will be useful. A tutorial could be step by step instructions on a Web site, or even a short film demonstrating the abilities of AnthroSource.




The AAA expects AnthroSource to be the online anthropological resource for years to come. AnthroSource must be better than any free alternative. Its success will depend on the quality of its services since much of the content will be available through JSTOR.

Figure 5: An anthropologist’s desk.

Because of the range of services AnthroSource can provide, it will be more than just information. Informants in our sample emphasized their desire for AnthroSource to provide community, context, and credibility. Community will be afforded through participation in services such as event calendars, peer feedback, directories, listings of internship opportunities, and chats. Contextualized search results will distinguish AnthroSource from other means of downloading documents such as JSTOR. When readers can assess a document by seeing not only an abstract but also citation ratings, reviews, comments, and listings of similar documents, they will have more understanding of the role of the document in the community. If readers are students, or outside of anthropology, they will have a basis upon which to judge the credibility of a document. Authors can get carefully managed peer feedback on unpublished documents.

In reaching beyond academic anthropologists, AnthroSource will be more than just research. It will engage varied audiences such as non–governmental organizations and the public in diverse uses of anthropological materials. AnthroSource will be more than just a Web site in offering personalized workspaces where members can tailor the user interface, content, and services to their liking. AnthroSource has the opportunity to evolve into a model academic portal, providing rich textual, audio and visual media, as well as services to link anthropologists and interested consumers in conversation about matters on which anthropology has so much to say. End of article


About the authors

Michael Adams is an undergraduate majoring at the University of California, Irvine in Information and Computer Science. He will graduate in December 2004. He is interested in software engineering, technology consulting, and business. In his spare time he enjoys the beaches of California and Hawaii and also pursuing new business ideas.

Melody Chu is a fourth year student in Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. She is the Vice President of Women in Computer Science, Peer Academic Advisor for the School of Information and Computer Science, and an intern at Unisys. She enjoys dancing, snowboarding, and spending quality time with friends and family.

Shiraz Khan is an undergraduate major in Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. He enjoys playing sports.

John Lai is a third year student majoring in Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. He is also working towards a minor in Management. He enjoys working on his computer, and tries to find time for reading and music.

Elsy Lao is an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine working toward a Bachelor of Science degree in Information and Computer Science with a specialization in Information Systems. Her interests include Web design, graphic design, human–computer interaction, and computer–mediated communication. She is the Webmaster of the UCI student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery.

Bonnie Nardi is an Associate Professor in the School of Information and Computer Science at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently writing a book, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design, with her colleague Victor Kaptelinin. She enjoys gardening.



Many thanks to our informants for talking to us about their information needs. We appreciate the helpful suggestions of Sandy Berlin, Suzanne Calpestri, Julia Gelfand, Carol Hughes, Hugh Jarvis, and Wade Kotter.



1. AAA AnthroSource Press release.

2. For budgetary reasons, the California Digital Library will cancel its subscription to Current Contents and continue to subscribe to the Web of Science, which not only duplicates but extends the content and functionality of Current Contents.

3. AnthroSource Steering Committee Meeting, 24 April 2004.

4. See Foster, 2004.



American Anthropological Association, 2003. "AnthroSource: Enriching scholarship and building global communities," Proposal to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

American Anthropological Association, 2003. "AAA AnthroSource Press release," (19 November) at

A. Foster, 2004. "Papers wanted: Online archives run by universities struggle to attract material," Chronicle of Higher Education (25 June.

J. Johnson, 2002. GUI bloopers. San Francisco: Morgan Kauffman.

D. Norman, 1998. The invisible computer. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

R. Textor, 2004. "Report on a visioning session to help guide future resource development for the AAA," Available from the author, at

Editorial history

Paper received 13 September 2004; revised 22 September 2004; accepted 30 September 2004.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

Copyright ©2004, Bonnie Nardi, Michael Adams, Melody Chu, Shiraz Khan, John Lai, and Elsy Lao

AnthroSource: Designing a portal for anthropologists
by Bonnie Nardi, Michael Adams, Melody Chu, Shiraz Khan, John Lai, and Elsy Lao
First Monday, volume 9, number 10 (October 2004),