Exploring History on the Web

Mapping the History Web

espite the enormity of Yahoo’s current history web directory, a cursory glance reveals its incompleteness. For example, it only lists 218 of the more than 1,200 history department web pages. Just thirteen online courses and syllabi make their way into the Yahoo directory; yet probably more than 15,000 history syllabi are publicly available on the web. Yahoo catalogs 888 Civil War websites, whereas the United States Civil War Center has 8,000 links in its directory.7 Of late, Yahoo’s web directory is becoming something of a historical artifact. In the first five years of the web, Yahoo was one of the dominant websites because it added the librarian’s touch of classification and order to a confusing hodgepodge of sites. Now Google’s rapid search of the raw mass of disorganized, heterogeneous web pages has replaced, by a tremendous margin, Yahoo’s tidy directory as the leading referrer of web visitors. The brute force of computer algorithms has proven far more useful than any human cataloging.

But neither the human-created directories nor the machine-based search engine capture all of the History Web. Much of the web has moved into databases (the “deep web”) that search engines have trouble accessing because they require some input from the visitor—a word or phrase—to call up their contents. Google searches on “George McClellan” don’t turn up the five hundred references, including letters, photos, speeches, and sheet music, within the eight-million-item American Memory collections at the Library of Congress. In addition, only paying customers can access vast precincts of the History Web, especially those containing secondary sources and even major collections of primary sources. The most careful Google searcher will not locate the 170 references to McClellan in scholarly articles provided online through JSTOR, a subscription database gated off from the public web. And although MIT leads the charge for “OpenCourseWare,” many universities keep their syllabi locked behind the doors of commercial programs like WebCT and Blackboard, thus making their educational materials unavailable to the broader world.8

The History Web has become so sprawling that some history websites concentrate solely on steering perplexed ramblers through the thicket. The World Wide Web Virtual Library’s History Index, begun by Lynn Nelson in 1993, has evolved into a network of two hundred different gateways and more than ten thousand links with volunteers taking responsibility for developing lists on particular topics (e.g., historical journals or ancient Greece). Others have developed more specialized gateways focusing on particular topics (e.g., librarian Ken Middleton’s American Women’s History: A Research Guide) or audiences (e.g., retired teacher Dennis Boals’s History/Social Studies for K-12 Teachers). Many of the gateways have struggled with the problems of keeping up with the proliferating numbers of sites and sorting the wheat from the chaff. Six of the nine gateways to U.S. history listed on the Virtual Library’s History Index are dead or out of date, perhaps reflecting the Sisyphean task taken on by their editors. In response, some sites have emerged that emphasize qualitative filtering such as our own History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web and World History Matters, or Best of History Web Sites organized by Thomas Daccord, a high school history teacher.9

Comprehensive and clear categorization of the History Web has proven elusive. Yahoo and many other directories take the most conventional approach, dividing listings by region, topic, and time period. Such divisions make clear that the History Web’s composition, in part, follows obvious patterns of economic and political dominance. For example, Yahoo counts 1,352 sites in British history but only 7 on Uganda. Popular history preferences clearly take precedence over professional concerns. Yahoo lists almost 3,000 genealogy sites and 900 on the American Civil War but lacks separate categories for cultural, social, and intellectual history, three of the largest areas of interest among members of the AHA. After having placed most history websites in geographic, topical, or temporal categories, Yahoo’s cataloguers—many of them trained as librarians—then throw up their hands at the eclecticism of the History Web and dump the remains under a catchall heading of “Additional History Categories,” which includes everything from “Archives and Bibliographies” to “Shopping and Services.”

The History Web is both more and less than a good historical library. It has spotty coverage in some areas that have well-developed historical literatures. But it provides rich information on topics—African American heritage tours and popular appropriations of historical figures like FDR among them—that most libraries don’t touch upon.

If conventional library categories are inadequate for mapping the History Web, are there other ways of classifying websites that provide further insight? One obvious division involves the types of authors. Because the web allows everyone to be a publisher at a remarkably low cost, amateurs and enthusiasts have a much more prominent place online than they do in print. Not only has the web called into existence a new group of grassroots historians but those nonacademic authors have acquired a much more public voice than they had before the rise of this new medium. Nevertheless, Larry Stevens’s fear about the “big guys” muscling in has proven prescient. Although the number of amateur sites remains larger than those coming from professional historians or historical organizations (museums, libraries, archives), the weight of web traffic has swung in the direction of such establishments. The sites ranked as most popular by Yahoo generally come from universities, government agencies (e.g., the Library of Congress or the National Park Service), or corporations (e.g., the History Channel).

The entry of large corporations into the History Web creates two further distinctions—between commercial and noncommercial sites and between gated sites and those with open access. So far, the presence of commercial history websites within the public web has been less prominent than many assumed in the era of the Internet gold rush that began shortly after Netscape’s stock price went through the roof. Discovery Communications sank more than $10 million into a site that prominently featured history. Today, it presents only historical material closely related to its cable programs. Even the original content that it expensively created in 1996 has disappeared.10

After the dot-com boom fizzled, the companies presenting history online were primarily those selling history as adjuncts of more traditional “bricks and mortar” businesses. Most prominent are the History Channel website (an affiliate of the cable television outlet) and TheHistoryNet (owned by Primedia, which publishes a stable of such popular history magazines as Civil War Times and owns About.com’s online guides to a variety of subjects, including history). Both sites reflect the advantages and disadvantages of most popular history—solid writing and production values, but a tendency to avoid controversy or strong interpretations and to focus on topics like war, technology, and entertainment. This is not surprising because these sites largely support businesses (cable TV, videos, magazines) that emphasize these topics.

The greater corporate presence on the History Web is behind closed doors—the “gates” erected by vendors who sell resources to libraries, especially university libraries, who then dispense them to their customers. Global information conglomerates like ProQuest and the Thomson Corporation have developed vast online databases of newspapers, documents, and books that they license to libraries for large fees and are, hence, available only to the patrons of those libraries able to afford the stiff price.

From the perspective of those who are thinking about creating their own website, probably the most helpful way to classify history websites is by the types of materials they provide and the functions and audiences they serve. The past decade has seen the emergence of five main genres of history websites that follow preexisting patterns and categories: archives (containing primary sources); exhibits, films, scholarship, and essays (that is, secondary sources); teaching (directed at students and teachers); discussion (focused on online dialogue); and organizational (providing information about a historical group). Yet these categories are often loosely followed and frequently blurred. Almost every exhibit site has primary source documents, as do many teaching sites. Few archival sites totally abstain from historical interpretation. And a large number of sites seem to defiantly reject the categorizations neatly laid out above. This is particularly true of topical sites that are intent on covering every possible facet of a given topic rather than trying to provide a certain kind of resource or serve a specific audience.

If categorizing sites is so difficult, why bother? One good reason is that it forces the incipient History Web creator to think about genres themselves, what Phil Agre calls the “expectable form that materials in a given medium might take.” Genres imply, in Agre’s words, “a particular sort of audience and a particular sort of activity” and are “the meeting-point between the process of producing media materials and the process of using them.” To pay attention to genres is to think about how what you are doing relates to the audience you are hoping to reach—something less necessary “in the old days, when media were few and their uses evolved slowly,” or when they evolved in an ad hoc, organic way.11 The newness of the web requires historians to be much more deliberate about what we are doing and why we are doing it. Moreover, thinking about genres focuses your attention on possible models. You may well aspire to break through categories and surpass what has been done previously—ambitions we applaud—but first you need to be familiar with what has been done before and why it was done that way.

7 George H. Hoemann, “The American Civil War Homepage,” The American Civil War, ↪link 1.7.

8 On OpenCourseWare, see David Diamond, “MIT Everyware,” Wired News (September 2003), ↪link 1.8.

9 “About the WWW-VL: United States History Network;” Ken Middleton, American Women’s History: A Research Guide, ↪link 1.9a; Dennis Boals, History/Social Studies for K-12 Teachers,

link 1.9b; CHNM and ASHP, History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, ↪link 1.9c; Best of History Web Sites, ↪link 1.9d.

10 O’Malley and Rosenzweig, “Brave New World or Blind Alley?”; “Discovery.com Workers Get Pink Slips,” Los Angeles Times, 14 November 2000; Randy Rieland, email to Roy Rosenzweig, 4 August 2003.

11 Philip E. Agre, “Designing Genres for New Media: Social, Economic, and Political Contexts,” in Steve Jones, ed., CyberSociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer Media Community and Technology (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998), 79–81, 70.