Matthew Pratt (1734–1805). The American School. 1765. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

JSTOR recently rolled out a new PDF viewer for journals and primary source text content on the platform. This new viewer aims to provide a better user experience by optimizing the text viewing and reading experience.

Background on JSTOR

JSTOR is a digital library founded in 1995 to provide online access to academic journals. The non-profit organization has since expanded to include books and primary sources as well. JSTOR’s mission is to increase productivity of scholarly research and make content accessible to researchers worldwide.

Over 12,000 institutions in more than 190 countries have access to JSTOR. The platform provides online access to over 12 million academic journal articles, books, and primary sources. Content spans 75 disciplines like African American studies, education, law, performing arts, and public policy.

Challenges with existing PDF viewer

JSTOR had been using an International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) viewer for displaying PDF content. While this allowed for deep zooming into page images, it was not optimized for reading. Users complained of difficulty scrolling, lack of search capabilities, and slow page loads.

The dated interface was not intuitive and presented barriers to assessing content efficiently. Readers could not easily skim articles or chapters to evaluate relevance. The page images also made keyword searching within documents impossible. Users had to download PDFs to search text, cluttering their devices.

With the previous IIIF viewer, users had difficulty efficiently evaluating content due to:

  • The text viewer experience is not optimized for reading.
  • Displaying page scans made it hard to search within documents.
  • Latency issues when paging through items to assess relevance.
  • Scrolling and zooming didn’t meet user expectations.

User feedback highlighted the need for improvements:

“I don’t like that when I use the mouse wheel it causes the view to zoom in or out. I want to use the mouse wheel to scroll up or down instead. The ‘page left”‘and ‘page right’ buttons get in the way. It was better when they were in a sidebar, not obstructing the text…”

Development of new viewer

To address these issues, JSTOR’s product team worked on a new PDF viewer tailored to scholarly reading. The goal was to balance image quality with text readability and enable discovery through search.

The new viewer displays text cleanly layered over high-quality page images. It meets modern with smooth touchscreen pinch/zoom and scrolling. A “Reading Mode” eliminates distractions by fading the page image into the background.

Built-in search allows keyword lookup across the entire document. Search terms are highlighted in the text to provide context. This avoids downloading PDFs when only a section is relevant.

The new PDF viewer provides:

  • Better scrolling and zooming, including touchscreen optimization
  • Keyword search capabilities
  • A new “Reading Mode” for distraction-free reading
  • Faster page loading
  • A more familiar, intuitive interface

User testing showed positive reactions:

“It’s definitely better than the current release of JSTOR. I think this version feels a little bit more efficient. It feels a little bit faster, like, the pages load more quickly [and] is organized in a way that almost all PDF readers are organized. It feels more familiar”

With the improvements, JSTOR expects users will do more reading on the platform rather than downloading PDFs. This shift will allow evaluation of new business models like demand-driven acquisition. Eventually, books will also transition to the new viewer.

User feedback highlighted the benefits:

“The keyword searching really solves a lot of problems. So, that’s great, because that would then save me downloading this document, cluttering up my downloads file with, you know, having to put this into another app. That would be great”

The PDF viewer update aligns with JSTOR’s goal of providing an optimal user experience and representing content well. Further enhancements are planned, like expanding to larger PDFs and improving OCR data to highlight search terms accurately. Overall, the new viewer promises a better, more engaging JSTOR platform.

Benefits of the new viewer

The new PDF viewer provides:

  • Optimized reading experience – Clean text display and immersive reading modes allow focus on the content.
  • Improved search – Keyword lookup makes discovery easier and reduces downloads.
  • Enhanced accessibility – Modern scrolling, zooming and navigation aids reading.
  • Increased engagement – Users spend more time reading on the platform vs downloading.

User reception

Early user testing and feedback indicate high satisfaction with the new PDF viewer experience. Users appreciate the refreshed look and familiar functionality.

Key benefits highlighted include:

  • “It feels snappier and more responsive.” The viewer loads pages faster and scrolls smoothly without lag. This improves engagement with content.
  • “The interface is cleaner and more intuitive.” Controls like zoom are easier to find and use. Reading modes eliminate on-screen clutter.
  • “Searching inside the document is so useful!” Keyword lookup allows quick evaluation without downloading the full PDF.
  • “The reading experience is way better.” Optimized text display and immersive modes make reading easier on the eyes.
  • “It’s more like other PDF readers now.” The familiar interface reduces the learning curve for new users.
  • “Touchscreen support is great.” Pinch/zoom and scrolling work well on mobile devices, facilitating access.

Future development 

While feedback has been positive, JSTOR plans to continue enhancing the viewer. Upcoming improvements include:

  • Expanding support to larger PDFs beyond the current 5MB limit and optimizing for low-bandwidth connections.
  • Improving OCR data quality to highlight search terms accurately.

JSTOR will also monitor usage data like time spent reading, search frequency, and downloads. This will help quantify engagement gains and shape future development.

JSTOR’s new PDF viewer resolves major pain points with the previous interface. By focusing on readability and discovery, it provides a much-improved user experience. Early reception indicates the updates deliver a modern, intuitive platform for accessing academic content. As JSTOR builds on this foundation, the viewer promises to further transform how scholars engage with literature.