Designing Digital History:learning to use the web effectively

Throughout the course so far, we have explored the many ways new media can be used to share information and engage people and organizations. This week, we read portions of Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenweig’s Digital History, which  discussed how historians can use the World Wide Web’s many possibilities to create websites that present history in useful ways. The book discusses everything from amount of text to color schemes to give historians a practical guide to constructing websites.

With these recommendations in mind, I took a look at a history website from my home state, The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. A joint project of the Tennessee Historical Society and the University of Tennessee Press, the website was created to be a “fully searchable version of the print edition of the encyclopedia originally published in 1998.

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 9.17.29 PMTurning the book into an online resource has the advantages of increasing accessibility, allowing for continuous updates and additions of entries, and linking text to other forms of data.The site homepage contains text promoting the enhancements made in “Version 2.0” of the site, although I can’t find the date the new version was released.

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Entries can be found in several ways. The search box function seems to work very effectively, and visitors can also explore entries alphabetically or by category. Headings at the top of the page also allow the exploration of images, audio, and video files. Under audio, there are only two files, leading me to think and hope that plans to expand the online collection are underway. Another tab is labeled “interactive” and offers slideshows on a variety of topics.

As far as design, the layout and colors used for the website are simple and cohesive. The site does not have an artistic design, but it successfully avoids elements that Cohen and Rosenweig warn can distract from a site’s information and purpose. Because of its nature as an encyclopedia, the history site does not shy away from long passages of text. the authors of Digital History would applaud this, as they discourage historians from following the conventions of the web that say text should be kept to a minimum. It is important we do not underestimate our audiences’ interest and understanding by limiting the knowledge we share with them.

However, when perusing the Encyclopedia, I found many entries that had no accompanying visuals (including a page about African American decorative arts with no images of decorative arts. seriously?) and none that had more than one on the page.  For what the site was originally created for, this isn’t too surprising. Each entry has links to the side to any related images, slideshows, etc. However, I think the site misses opportunities provided in converting from a print form to a digital one by not integrating text and visuals into the same page. Cohen and Rosenweig warn against going overboard with photos and maps and visuals that do more to distract than to add info. Nevertheless, public historians should use websites not only to share their research, but to connect audiences with primary sources to enhance the learning experience and the understanding of the discipline. I hope that this encyclopedia and others like it continue to explore the possibilities of sharing history in creative and thoughtful ways.

I also noticed this message on the homepage:

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I could not find these guidelines online, but it indicates that historians everywhere are discussing strategies for presenting history online.

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