A Review of Existing Digital History

Though a fairly new endeavor, digital history sites have already populated the internet, some better than others. There appears to be a learning curve with these projects, with the more recent examples significantly improved from some of the first attempts. Overall, I believe that a good digital history project must be at least on some level interactive. The traditional panel model for museums does not translate well when the exhibit is behind a glowing screen- when a visitor drives to view an exhibit, he or she will stand and read, but on the internet, where impatience seems to be the M.O., reading times must be interspersed with options that require visitor participation.

1. Gilded Age Plains City, University of Nebraska Lincoln

gildedage1

The Good:

  • The page begins at a strong, clear introduction page, with the title and subpages clearly displayed. The visitor know not only what the project is but what to expect and how to navigate as they move deeper into the site.
  • Consistent, thoughtful typography and color schemes are used throughout.
  • Though the page includes large bodies of text, it is always divided with bold subheadings that allow the visitor to scroll to the information that interests them.
  • Dividing the story of the city into “Spatial” and “Narrative” sections prevents the visitor from being overwhelmed by information on a single page, and to progress through the website logically, building on the understanding developed in previous sections.
  • The spatial elements are my favorite part of this site. I am particularly interested in applications of GIS to telling historical narratives, and the interactive mapping portions of this site are done nicely. First, the concept of a “spatial narrative” is explained in an introductory page. Then, the map allows visitors to zoom in to an area of the city of their choosing, which gives them an image of the building and a link to the narrative of that particular place.

gildedage2

The Bad:

  • The logo remains at the top of the page as visitors navigate through the site, but clicking it does not return the visitor to the home page. (Picky, I know, but navigability is an critical element of any good website.)
  • Text areas, though subdivided clearly, are lengthy at times for a digital project. The use of images beyond the interactive map is very limited, and more pictures could have improved the readability as well as the overall experience with the website.
  • More information on the murder trial from the beginning would have been helpful. The narrative of the town was clearly communicated, but the framework of the murder was unclear at times.

The Take-Away:

Interactive elements are the core of the successful digital history site, and I absolutely want to include as much interaction in our final project as possible. This site excels because it allows the visitor to explore the town in the order of their choosing, while still maintaining clarity and order throughout. The site also reminds me of the importance of images. I want to incorporate as many multimedia elements as possible in the final Century America project, using text in more spaced-out formats so that no one page is dominated by either words or images.

2. Mapping the Republic of the Letters, from Stanford University

The Good:

  • The homepage is a very unique, intriguing timeline/image compilation that grabs the visitor’s attention from the beginning and gives context for the rest of the site.
  • A welcome video is included on the homepage, a multimedia element that is more exciting and interesting than text explaining the same subject matter.
  • Easy to use tabs on a top menu make navigation back to the home page or to a particular section simple.
  • Instead of simply listing the authors’ names, each letter compilation uses a linked image, giving the page more visual interest and increasing the likelihood that visitors will actually click to read the document.
  • Visually interesting flow maps draw connections between the letters and the spatial relationships between the writers and the recipients. Because of this, the site is not just a digital archive of letters but a unique piece of scholarship bringing new understanding to the documents.

The Bad:

  • Though the homepage timeline is intriguing, it is not interactive and clicking it simply enlarges the image, though not enough to actually read the text at the bottom.
  • Several sections, like “Teaching” and “Publication” are unclear.
  • The page in general could benefit from more explicit, clear explanations throughout. At times I was left asking, “Why?” when viewing a new section.

The Take-Away:

This website again encourages me to incorporate mapping or spatial elements into our final Century America project. The flow maps are particularly interesting in their ability to show movement and change over time. Beginning with a timeline also seems to me an effective introductory tool, though an interactive timeline would be even more likely to grab visitors’ attention, and we should ensure that the image is at least large enough to be easily read. I also definitely want to use multimedia elements, especially video in the final project. Jack had already mentioned using small documentary videos put together in the digital media lab for our project, and I think videos could serve as exciting introductions for each section or theme of our website.

Above all, the project reiterates for me the importance of over-clarifying on digital history sites. Unlike papers, where a thesis stated clearly at the beginning is sufficient, the general message and topic of a web-based project must be repeated over and over again, because digital media is not consumed linearly. For our final project, it will be important to consider the “flow” of the webpage, or the order and manner in which the visitor will navigate the site.

3. Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, NC State University

The Good:

  • From the homepage, I was drawn in to this project, and impressed with the graphic design, typography, and overall “feel” of the site. The design is professional, clean, modern, and easy to read and navigate.
  • The premise of the project, a virtual recreation of Jonn Donne’s Gunpowder Day sermon, is interdisciplinary and extremely innovative. The project feels new and original.
  • Easy-to-read tabs at the top menu clearly categorize the work of the project so that the visitor knows exactly what to expect within each division. The sections “Churchyard,” “Acoustics,” “Preacher,” “Occasion,” and “Sermon” break down the recreations of the various elements of the speech, giving a deeper picture of the day than reading the document ever could.
  • The layout of the page is simple but effective. Large, high quality images of the recreations dominate the page.

The Bad:

  • I have a hard time finding faults with this project, but some pages, especially under the “Preacher” tab, have too much uninterrupted text.

The Take-Away:

In the end, this website is so effective because it accomplishes digitally what could not be done with paper or spoken word. The use of audio and visual elements, not just as supplement but as innovative ways to understand a point in history, makes the project a powerful, encompassing experience that yields a deeper understanding of the narrative than a paper could provide. Ultimately, this is what I hope to accomplish with the Century America project for UMW. A digital history project should do what can only be done digitally; it cannot be simply a digitized paper with a few extra images.

2 comments

  • I love your take-away from the Gilded Age site–I definitely want to include interactive features in our final site to really help engage site visitors. However, I think we need a careful balance, because too much interactivity could be overwhelming for people who may just come for simple information.

  • I think your emphasis on how you were “drawn into” Virtual Paul’s Project home page is something we should consider as we’re designing our sites. Since we’re usually writing papers for our professors and not for a broad audience, we have to remind ourselves not just to get the information out, but to do so in an enticing manner and try and catch people’s attention. In my education, I’ve done away with boisterous introductions and have started getting right to the point in any argumentative/historical essay I’ve been writing, and I feel like we will have to unlearn that behavior in order to grab our audiences’ attention right from the start so they’ll want to go through the whole site.

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