In my browsing of three digital history sites — Gilded Plains Murder, the Emilie Davis Diaries, and MapScholar —, I came across a wide variety of digital history execution. More importantly, I discovered I am insanely picky about what font a website uses.
Nothing says READ ME like having murder in the title of your webpage. Gilded Plains Murder, personally, is a well-constructed, interesting exploration of Gilded Age history in the rural Midwest. The text is extremely well-written and interesting. Special kudos to whomever wrote the welcome letter on the homepage. You had me at “Gilded Age microhistory”. It was sincere and really draws the casual browser into the meat of the website. The greatest strength of GPM is its use of an interactive city map (pictured right down yonder). You can filter buildings by industry and occupation. Pretty cool stuff. Finally, the site features a great archive of pictures, newspapers, and postcards. The idea of archiving post cards stuck me as insightful and unexpected. 10 points for GPM.
However, Gilded Plains Murder is, much like the era it explains, fantastic on the outside but questionable once you get to the nougat center. The most glaring problem with GPM is the excruciatingly large blocks of texts. Internet users do not sign on to read pages and pages of text. That is what books are for. By not integrating photographs and just leaving links to the archives, the site presents the reader with seemingly endless words. Lazy internet browsers are not going to actively click on all of those links, especially if they open new windows or even worse: open other pages.
Next on the chopping block we have The Emilie Davis Diaries. Personally, this site is rolling in potential. Here we have three diaries of an African American woman living in Pennsylvania during the Civil War. This is some big stuff here. But for me, this site fails to meet this great opportunity. The ability to browse the entries based on subject matter? Simply fantastic. I wanted to get straight to the Gettysburg Address, and I could somewhat easily get there thanks to this menu. I also appreciated the integrated actual diary page next to the transcribed entry. Something about seeing the actual page is important to me. And then the EDD starts to fall far short of my expectations for greatness.
The most glaring problem is the font choice for the diary. Why on Earth would you chose such marvelous old-style graphics for the site title and banner and then use a modern font for her diary? She wrote this in the 1860s for Pete’s sake. She would not be using Helvetica or Tahoma. These two choices separate the original too much from the modern transcription. It doesn’t even feel like you are reading the same thing. The glaring blue links that lead to annotations (which are helpful) further this discrepancy from the original to the transcription. Because she totally had a big blue pen to link things to, right?
Also, the site provides little to no history of this woman. Where did she live? What kind of job did she hold? What happened to her? Did she have a family? Do we have photographs of her? These questions are necessary for the browser to be invested in the subject. Why does reading this diary matter if we do not who this person is?
Finally, we have MapScholar. This unusual little site was more confusing than helpful. There were integrated photos of maps which made me happy. I did not have to read a lot, at least at first. I appreciated the simple, clean layout (Thanks WordPress!). And then the magic abruptly stopped.
MapScholar was utterly bizarre. The site boasted of stunning graphics of maps, yet the site title was pixelated and outdated looking. And then I made the mistake of trying to look at the promised stunning resolution of an old map. The link took me to a Google maps type application that had no instructions. I tried to wing it, using my sophisticated twenty-first century computer skills and gave up after only a few minutes of aimless clicking. (In the photo below, I actually got a map to appear on the screen. I have no idea what this is a map of, but it is on the screen!) When I looked around on the site for instructions, they were nowhere to be found. I did, however, find a large page full of great praise for this map software and all the joy it will bring history students everywhere. No such joy was felt this evening.
So what have I learned? I have learned to choose the right font. The right font can make or break the visuals of a page. No one wants to read a website in Comic Sans. I have learned to integrate pictures. I hate reading endless paragraphs of text, so why would I make my browsers do the same? I learned that instructions are handy for anything more difficult than clicking on an obvious tab. I have learned to have a good welcome letter. Like a book with the reader, a webpage snagging the browser is probably the most important thing it can do.
So future viewers of my site, prepare to be snagged. Just as soon as I figure out what font I will use…