Getting Started: The Nature of Websites, and What You Will Need to Create Yours


e hope you now have a better sense of whether you will be able to build your website on a shoestring budget or need to seek additional resources, and whether you will be able to create all the parts of your site yourself. Looking once again at your prioritized list of website features, you should understand which elements–that zoomable map, the introductory video–may seem less desirable, or simply more complicated to implement. Other features, such as the creation of a large database, will clearly require a lot of work (in both data entry and the technology to serve that information), and in such cases you will naturally begin to think about additional help and resources.

Funding can be difficult to come by, but is a necessity for complex or large sites, or sites with unique features. The Sonic Memorial Project, with its extensive multimedia capabilities, storage requirements, and programming, needed significant funding from multiple sources. National Public Radio’s Lost & Found Sound, which archives recordings of everyday life from the past and present, received support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, the Third Wave Foundation, Creative Capital, and others. They also received in-kind support from another well-funded (by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) September 11 web history project, the September 11 Digital Archive (run by CHNM and the American Social History Project). Special arrangements were made to host the site on a powerful and highly specialized server at George Mason University, and the maintenance of that site and the software it runs on will be a concern–and cost –for years to come. Stephen Railton’s Mark Twain in His Times website received similar nonmonetary support from within the University of Virginia (UVA), including designated graduate research assistants to update it. Railton’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture site received a $7,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a matching amount from UVA’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH), but still required significant generosity and in-kind support from within his university, including the library’s Special Collections division, the E-Text Center, the Digital Media Center, and the English Department where Railton teaches. This sort of cobbling together of resources–frequently nonmonetary–is commonplace for historical websites.24

Finding resources is difficult, and you should assess potential funding from all available venues before a project begins. You should start with what you know best. Think about funders who might be interested in what you are trying to do–e.g., trying to improve teaching in your own course, enhance student learning in your school district, or make people aware of the history of your local community–rather than the more diffuse areas of “history” or “technology.” Many colleges and universities offer seed grants or technical support for projects proposed by faculty. The Valley of the Shadow (see Chapter 1) started with a seed grant and support from IATH before it went on to win major national funding. For our own project on the French Revolution (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity), we obtained startup money from the Gould Foundation, a small foundation with no particular interest in new technology but with a passionate devotion to promoting French history. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has generously supported our work on the Echo project, in part because of their strong commitment to the history of science, technology, and industry. Many cities and towns have local foundations that care deeply about that community and would support a local history project. Every state and U.S. territory has a humanities council, which receives funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and often raises other funds as well. Their rules vary widely, but they often support local history projects.

A few, larger, national foundations have provided significant support for digital history projects. But you need to keep in mind that applications to such foundations are complex and difficult, often requiring weeks of work. NEH, for example, uses a rigorous process of peer review in which the required full documentation can run hundreds of pages. But they have given crucial support to dozens of digital history projects, including a number of our own. If you are interested in NEH support, you need to closely read their guidelines and also think carefully about the “genre” of your project. NEH is not interested in supporting digital history as an abstract category but rather in digital history projects that further its goals of disseminating the humanities to multiple audiences. Hence, the largest number of projects it has supported have been educational projects, although it has also provided funds for some–DoHistory, for example–through its public programs division. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has also given millions of dollars to digital history projects such as the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University and the National Gallery of the Spoken Word at Michigan State University (with other partners).25 But NSF’s goals (and hence the requirements for receiving funding) are quite different from NEH; they seek (as part of their larger interest in computer science and information technology) to support research work in “digital libraries.” That your project will transform our understanding of the Civil War will make little headway at NSF; that it will develop a new method for efficiently searching a million Civil War documents might get them very excited.

Figure 19: A major digital project wiht significant technical demands and the human resources that go along with such demands, such as the National Gallery of the Spoken Word ’

Thus the starting point for seeking money is very similar to the one we have emphasized in Chapter 1–first, be clear on the goals for your project. Then, figure out a funder who shares those goals. The Institute for Museum and Library Services, another federal agency, offers grants to groups providing “national leadership” for the museum and library fields through a variety of projects, including digital ones. The Mellon Foundation’s Program in Scholarly Communication has provided tens of millions of dollars to “the applications of technology in the development of scholarly resources,” including, for example, two projects to foster online publication in history, the Gutenberg-E Project of the American Historical Association and Columbia University Press and the American Council of Learned Societies History E-Book project. But a project that enhances K–12 education, however worthy or innovative, is of no interest to them.26 Just as you need to seek appropriate technology, you also need to seek appropriate funders.

Although multimillion dollar grants are alluring, many of the most successful digital history projects have begun with no resources but the passion of their creators. Especially in the early days of the History Web, that initial dedication won these sites equally dedicated audiences, which in some cases then won the hearts of funders. Other sites have remained labors of love. Even on modest (or nonexistent) budgets, such sites have contributed significantly to the public understanding of the past. Regardless of your funding needs—and whether you are able to meet them—most historical websites can begin simply, with the choice of a web host, a careful assessment of what you’ll need, perhaps the creation of a few web pages outlining your project to the world, and a plan for constructing the site in full. Once you’ve taken care of these basic elements, you can begin the hard work of putting together primary and secondary sources for your website. In many cases, because so much of what we study remains in nonelectronic forms, this means bringing artifacts and documents to the web through digitization.

24 The Sonic Memorial Project, ↪link 2.24a; Stephen Railton, Mark Twain in His Times, ↪link 2.24b.

25 “AODL Grant Info,” National Gallery of the Spoken Word, ↪link 2.25a; audio collections created by this project can be found at ↪link 2.25b.

26 “Libraries and Scholarly Communication,” The Andrew Mellon Foundation, link 2.26. Mellon also has a program in “teaching and technology” but it focuses on higher education.