Some Final Thoughts

o preserve, of course, you must first create. Although we have emphasized the need for planning and have proceeded carefully through the steps of building your site’s infrastructure, digitizing materials, designing your pages, launching your site, ensuring compliance with copyright laws, and protecting what you have developed, we would like—in closing—to warn you against the temptation to be overly deliberate in moving online. If historians are predisposed to a character flaw, being too deliberative is perhaps the most likely candidate. Deliberation is, to be sure, a great and worthy virtue in our profession. Diligent investigation of the historical record, the careful weighing of evidence, thoughtful dialogue with one’s peers, and the detailed preparation of publications have formed the foundation of a discipline that has educated and enlightened generations.

We believe, however, that with so many details to think about, too much deliberation can be counterproductive, making some hesitant to contribute to the History Web—thus reducing the number and variety of online creators. To add the web to their means of expression and methods of research, all historians must shed the tentativeness that often accompanies an encounter with the new, and which our natural and sensible caution may exacerbate. Voltaire’s observation that the perfect is the enemy of the good seems especially applicable to work in this new media. With a fairly simple and relatively forgiving underlying language, HTML, and a low barrier to entry—a computer connected to the Internet—the web encourages experimentation. By testing preliminary or partial versions of your site you can identify problems early on and make changes before you invest a lot of time and money. A site can always be changed or modified as it grows or you come across issues you were unable to anticipate in the planning stages. And, as you proceed, you can learn much of what we have covered in this book as well as other topics both historical and technical, as we have certainly done—and continue to do.

Encouraging broad participation is indeed part of the history of the web itself. Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee first developed his Internet technology for the computer-savvy members of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, but he also hoped that the simplicity of adding pages to the system would encourage all kinds of people using all kinds of computers to participate in a World Wide Web. Berners-Lee set the bar for participation very low in his original 1989 proposal for the web, with the very brief section entitled “Bells and Whistles” only aiming at “storage of ASCII [plain] text, and display on 24 x 80 [character dimension] screens” with the “addition of graphics an optional extra.”1 Although 1989 may seem a long time ago, many quite advanced graphical computer systems existed by then—especially within CERN—so Berners-Lee’s formulation shows he intended to have his method as widely adopted as possible. This intention remains in the relative ease with which you can enter the world of web production. Indeed, the recent spread of wikis and especially blogs has made it even easier for historians to put their words online. Despite the “bells and whistles” that the web has added since its first use at CERN, digital history can be not so dissimilar from history in print.

Although we have taken you through a series of topics that may be new and at times complex, we hope that our larger message—that all historians can use the web to make the past more richly documented, more accessible, more diverse, more responsive to future researchers, and above all more democratic—has risen above the occasional technical details. The ubiquity of digital media in our lives—a pervasiveness that will only grow in coming years—makes this message all the more important. We believe it would be a grave mistake to cede this new medium to commercial interests or to “techies.” Surely, a wide range of historians—whether teachers or students, public or academic, professional or amateur—need to make their voices heard on the web. All of us have a responsibility to ensure that the new digital history is a democratic history, one that reflects many different voices of the past and the present, that encourages everyone to participate in writing their own histories, and that reaches diverse and multiple audiences in the present and future.

The great Southern historian C. Vann Woodward once declared, perhaps to the cheers of the neo-Luddites, that his #2 pencil was his computer. But in our new century most historians will consider the computer their pencil, and we hope this book will help them discover new and creative ways of gathering, preserving, and presenting the past with it.

1Tim Berners-Lee, “Information Management: A Proposal,” March 1989, ↪ Link F.1