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


In this chapter you will learn about:

  • The basic technologies behind the web
  • Additional technologies that different genres of historical websites use
  • How to match appropriate and properly scaled technologies to your particular project
  • How to produce and serve digital text, images, and multimedia
  • When to use databases and markup languages like XML
  • What domain names are and whether you need one
  • Hosts for your website
  • Whether you might need to pursue funding for your site and how to do so

he wide variety of historical websites is accompanied by an almost equally varied set of methods for producing them. This should come as no surprise; in the equally diverse world of paper, authors, publishers, and printers produce the Dictionary of National Biography, a textbook on world history, a scholarly monograph on the Carolingian dynasty, and a popular biography of Susan B. Anthony in significantly different ways. Even the casual reader notices variations among bindings, paper, front and back matter, and other clues about the nature of such works. In their area of specialty, historians often can detect how a work was produced, when, and for what reason from characteristic nuances in the composition and material of printed sources. We can all gauge the size and length of a printed work through a cursory glance.

On the web, the seemingly clear window of the browser obscures many of these helpful clues. Type in an address (also known as a uniform resource locator, or URL, in the acronymic terminology of the Internet that will dot this chapter but we hope not spoil it), and the browser magically fishes a “web page” out of the wide sea of the Internet. Although sometimes colorful, these web pages do not come in all shapes and sizes. The relatively small set of universally available fonts on computers and the low resolution (compared to print) of a web browser window restrict, somewhat, the potential for visual distinction. Moreover, you cannot easily assess from a web page the size of the website to which it belongs, in the way you do instantly and unconsciously when picking a book from a shelf. A web page is a web page is a web page.

Or so it appears. The truth about these “pages” is that they involve just as much human input as a papyrus or pamphlet, even if they can be reproduced virtually without limit or cost once created. Indeed, web pages probably require more shepherding than such physical manifestations of human expression. After a book page is printed or diary entry recorded, it is “fixed” (to use the U.S. Copyright Office’s favorite word) in a form that will likely survive for generations.

A web page, on the other hand, can fall prey to unique electronic fates: it can be deleted, altered, or corrupted, or become technologically obsolete. Moreover, authors of web pages can produce them in a variety of ways, ranging from simple computer files similar to those produced by word processors to highly dynamic compositions that involve complex programming, databases, and the efforts of multiple computers. Visitors searching for information about the history of Douglas County, Kansas, via Google, the popular web search engine, and through the home page of the Douglas County Historical Society, for instance, proceed through two useful “pages” in their browser. Both pages are written in the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) that is the programming lingua franca of the web, and both include some text, an image in the upper left, and the links that are part of most web pages. In this sense, these pages do not seem that different, yet the Google results page is the nearly instantaneous creation of roughly 100,000 computers working in tandem, whereas the Douglas County Historical Society uses 99,999 fewer machines to satisfy web surfers interested in the same topic.1

This comparison is not meant to belittle the Douglas County Historical Society nor their website. Much the opposite. It points to a fundamental rule that all historians looking to move onto the web should follow: The technology used to produce a website should be appropriate for the website’s content and purpose. The Douglas County Historical Society doesn’t need 100,000 computers. Surely it could use this number if it wanted to (having first attained record levels of funding for a local historical society), but it would be more trouble than it would be worth. The number of visitors, type of information being presented, and extent of its site make such a purchase unreasonable. This may seem an obvious point, but new website creators often try to use too much technology for a project, or too little. For example, an archive of 20,000 documents like the New Deal Network could consist of 20,000 individually authored web pages, but it would be much better for it to consist—as it does—of a small computer program that creates those 20,000 pages automatically from a database.2 Among other advantages, when the creators of the site want to change the look of every page, they only have to make a single change to the program rather than manually edit thousands of pages.

The teacher who wants to supplement a course syllabus with online student interactions could achieve this goal in several ways, from an email list to a web-based bulletin board to instant messaging to a blog to a wiki to commercial course management software. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and level of required technical proficiency, and you need to understand these differences before committing too many or too few resources to this addition. Guides to creating websites often begin with stern warnings to plan ahead. This strikes us as a case of the cart coming before the horse. How can you plan your website when you are not sure whether you need a database or not, or even what a database is and what it can and cannot do? By looking “under the hood” of the History Web, this chapter provides background information to help historians make good decisions about which technologies and methods they will need for their particular digital project. This exploration, in turn, leads to further considerations about funding, staffing, and hardware and software purchases.

1< Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum, ↪link 2.1a; Rich Skrenta, “The Secret Source of Google’s Power,” Weblog, ↪link 2.1b.

2 New Deal Network, New Deal Network, ↪link 2.2.