Exploring History on the Web
Discussion and Organizational Sites
mail appeared on the Internet almost twenty years before the web, and it remains the most important channel of online historical communication and debate. H-Net, established in 1993, dominates the world of online historical discussion with more than 150 lists on everything from African expressive culture to utopian studies. Another very early Internet form—the newsgroup—also remains an arena for popular discussion of the past with fourteen history groups available through Usenet discussion forums.53 Although the web, like email and newsgroups, is fundamentally a communication medium, it has not yet proven to be a primary location for historical discussion. Most successful have been commercial websites that provide spaces for people with shared interests or experiences to engage in online debate and conversation. For example, the History Channel has active discussion boards on wars, religion, and sports that have attracted thousands of comments.
The liveliest of those discussion groups are those like the one on the Vietnam War in which participants share reminiscences and experiences. Similarly, SeniorNet has found a large following for online discussions of World War II about veterans and those who lived through the war on the home front. Though the goal in SeniorNet is more recreational and therapeutic than historical, some other sites have focused more directly on using the Internet to collect the past. For example, our own Echo project and some other websites supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have gathered online reminiscences on such diverse topics as women in science and engineering, the New York City blackouts of the 1960s and 1970s, the information theorist Claude Shannon, and electric cars. (Chapter 6 discusses these and similar sites in more detail.)
Now that the web has displaced the library and perhaps the phone book as the first place most people go to find information, it has become necessary for every historical organization to stake out a home on the web so that people can find them and learn about their activities. Every major and minor historical organization, whether professional or popular—from the American Historical Association to the Wisconsin Historical Society to the Third Regiment Infantry, Maryland Volunteers (a group of reenactors)—has its website. More than 1,200 college and university history departments use the web to inform current and prospective students about faculty, course offerings, and other resources.54
Historical societies, historic sites, and historic houses that want to attract visitors find the web the perfect way to let those visitors know about hours and directions. Some historic places and museum sites go considerably beyond such barebones information. The extensive Monticello website not only tells you how to plan your visit; it also provides detailed narratives about Thomas Jefferson and his house as well as virtual reality panoramas of all the house’s public rooms, teaching resources, and research materials on controversial subjects like Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. The National Park Service’s Links to the Past, which connects web surfers to the two hundred NPS history locations as well as a wealth of other resources, attracts heavy web traffic.55
The slipperiness of these web history categories seems to be one of the web’s characteristics; its heterogeneity almost inevitably blurs genres. Many archive sites offer historical interpretations and some museum sites provide teaching materials in addition to archives. Still, most of these sites fit predominantly in one category or another. At the same time the web has also given birth to a set of sites that aspire to provide everything or almost everything on a particular topic—primary sources, interpretive commentary, teaching materials, and discussion. Such a topical approach does not have obvious counterparts in the analog world where historical work is more clearly defined by relatively discrete audiences—researchers, scholars, students, or museum-goers, for example.
Some of the most impressive history sites on the web are massive topical sites, which provide a kind of one-stop shopping on a particular historical topic—such as University of Virginia American literature professor Stephen Railton’s two websites Mark Twain in His Times and Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture, or DoHistory, an exploration of the diary of the eighteenth-century midwife Martha Ballard and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning study of it.56 Yet topical sites are also among the weakest history websites because they sometimes lack focus and wind up being a hodgepodge of materials centered on a particular theme. Often, it makes more sense to try to excel at one thing—at providing access to a rich archive, offering an intriguing interpretive exhibit, or supplying effective classroom tools or resources—rather than straining to cover areas and reach audiences that go beyond your talents or resources.
Even such a quick tour of the History Web reveals its potential and its problems. For those who are seeking to get themselves started online, it also suggests two basic steps that you should take before you put pixel to screen. First, become familiar with what has already been done. The ten-year record of the History Web has provided an abundant corpus of sites that you can explore in detail and get ideas and inspirations—about content, about design, about infrastructure—for your own efforts. Our hurried excursion has no doubt emphasized well-known and conventional sites at the expense of the quirky and out-of-the-way corners of the History Web. But we have done so with the conviction that a thorough knowledge of standard practices is the starting point for building unconventional history websites that combine a personal voice and inventive design with unusual primary sources and startling new historical interpretations.
Second, think hard about the “genre” of site you are creating. Is this meant to be an archive of primary sources, a presentation of a historical interpretation (whether done visually or in text), a resource for teaching, a place for discussion, an advertisement for a historical organization, or a combination of some or all of the above? To answer such questions forces you to think about your audience—the community of people you want to reach—as well as your most basic goals in doing digital history. Before you begin the more practical steps in the journey outlined in the next seven chapters you need to know why you are taking that journey, who you hope will join you, and where you hope to go.
53 Mark Kornbluh and Peter Knupfer, “H-Net Ten Years On: Usage, Impact and the Problems of Professionalization in New Media” (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, Chicago, January 2003), ↪link 1.53a; “soc.history,” Google Groups, ↪link 1.53b. On early networks, see also Nelson, “Before the Web”; Mabry, “Electronic Mail and Historians,” 1, 4, 6.
54 American Historical Association, ↪link 1.54a; Wisconsin Historical Society, ↪link 1.54b; Third Regiment Infantry, Maryland Volunteers, Company A, 2003, ↪link 1.54c; “Guide to History Departments,” Center for History and New Media, ↪link 1.54d.
55 Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello: The Home of Thomas Jefferson, ↪link 1.55a; National Park Service, “Links to the Past: National Park Service Cultural Resources,” National Park Service, ↪link 1.55b.
56 Stephen Railton, “Preface-in-Progress,” Mark Twain in His Times, ↪link 1.56a; Stephen Railton, “Credits,” Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture, ↪link 1.56b; Film Study Center, Harvard University, DoHistory: Martha Ballard's Diary Online, ↪link 1.56c.