Digital History: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Is it possible to research, design, write and publish a successful digital history project? Yes and no. After reviewing several digital history projects I have come to the conclusion that some projects can have great success while other just fall flat. Most of the historical research is impeccable and useful, some of the sites lack a user friendly interface, while others are down right ugly and reminded me of Windows ’98 (for one reason or another). The three projects included the Emily Davis Diaries, The Valley of the Shadow, and the French Revolution. Each had a varying degree of usefulness, beauty, and horror.

The Good: The Emilie Davis Diaries 

One of the better projects I looked at was Villanova University collection of diaries written by Emilie Davis. The site consist of all the diary entries of Emilie Davis, who was an African American woman living in Philadelphia during the Civil War. Each diary entry is transcribed for viewers to read easier than her normal handwriting. The organization of the website is built thoroughly with each diary entry placed in chronological order making it easy for users to go through the diary on a day to day basis. Additionally, users can search for key words throughout the website making for even easier user capability.  One cool and useful aspect about the project is a keyword and most used word bank at the bottom of the webpage. Along with the transcribed diary is a digital copy of the original diary on every page.  However, one of the best features of the project are the individual annotations on each page of the diary. This feature would work great for the project we are currently working on and is something we should all look into.

Besides just the usability of the website, the aesthetics and design are above par when looking at other historical websites. There is not too little nor too much information on each and it has a very clean cut look. Continuity is key and the project is completely successful at not changing the site layout on each page. Most websites tend to diverge from their layout once you continue on through their sites.

Overall the site serves its intended purpose and does not leave users horrified in what could have been a disaster. Instead the team at Villanova did an excellent job at bringing history to the web and giving access to those interested in the Emilie Davis diaries plenty to work with.

The Bad: The Valley of the Shadow

Though not wretched The Valley of the Shadow is nothing in comparison to the Emily Davies Diaries. The project consist of an online archive of material such as newspapers and court documents from two cities (one north and one south) during the Civil War. From the homepage users are greeted with a very creative interface. The developers actually brought the archive to the web. What I mean is that the designers gave each category and time frame its own individual “room”. Though this method is very cool and original the website lacks continuity and navigation. Once you begin diving into the actual material it is very easy to get lost in the archive and there is no way for you to navigate your way back.  The site goes from one theme to another and changes the user interface. However, this problem is no easy task when it comes to websites that host such large amounts of material. I absolutely love the idea of bringing the “archive” to the web, but the site itself is not very helpful.

One of the major components missing in this site is a main menu. The lack of menu makes users have to press the back button constantly to navigate back and forth between pages and the home page. However, the site does attempt to help users navigate their way through the conundrum by offering a “how to” page.

This project by far is not your standard website. The Valley of the Shadow only needs a few new components and a different layout in some areas to be a new creative site for historical research. It basically needs a revamp with a little bit of old school. Creativity with a site can set you apart from others, but you cannot skimp out on vital components of a website.

The Ugly: The French Revolution 

When I first went to this site created by George Mason University and the City University of New York I immediately wanted to leave the site. I lost all hope for the site when I saw them using three or four different font styles and colors on the homepage. Why is everything aligned on the left side of the page?  The menu is scattered about the small canvas making it difficult for users to even find a beginning. I do not believe I have attempted to navigate a more difficult website in my life. You are instantly thrown into a maze of French Revolutionary history. These type of sites is why so many are against the digital age and bringing history to the web. I do understand that the site is relatively old and more than likely has not been updated in a very very long time. Nonetheless, as an online archive this site should be continuously upgraded for its users so they don’t instantly give up on their research when they first come to your site. Lastly out of all the sites I looked at this is the only one I can remember that offers some type of merchandise for sale.

I can not possibly imagine how anyone could use this website for research. You are better off going to an actual archive than navigating this site. I will more than likely not take away anything from this website to place in my other than seeing what not to do when it comes to a digital history.


All in all as we continue on into the future digital history seems to get better and more creative as we go on. For the digital past it is best if we leave some projects in dust and learned from what we lost. Project such as the Emilie Davis Diaries allow other historians and students great ideas for great historical project. The do’s and don’ts are all there in these three project and there is enough to take away to begin building our own sites.

One thought on “Digital History: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. I felt the same way about the French Revolution site–it would be very difficult to do research on. As far as alignment of the web page goes, that really bothered me, but many older websites had/have that problem of the site and its content being too small now. The Virginia Historical Society’s website used to be exactly like that (except centered, rather than on the left), but they have a brand new website now that took them several years to develop. If you go to search their collections, though, you can still see remnants of the old site!

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