In my most recent assignment for Digital Public History, I reviewed 11 websites that tackle various historical topics, from the Great Chicago Fire to diaries of World War I soldiers. The sites were organized by time period into three general phases: Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. (Very creative, I know.) Here are all the websites:
- Blackout History Project (1998)
- The Progress of a People (1998)
- The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory (1999)
- “Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia 1941-1945” (2002)
- “A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S…” (2002)
- “Raid on Deerfield” (2004)
- “Slavery in New York” (2005)
- “Lincoln at 200” (2010)
- “Bracero History Archive” (2010)
- “Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible,” (2012)
- “Operation War Diary” (2014)
With all the intellectual rigor of an Amazon review, I’ll start with this: websites today are so much better than in the late 1990’s. This is the most superficial aspect of my analysis, but the Phase 1 and Phase 2 websites remind me that progress on the Internet moves fast, and any website that isn’t maintained regularly looks extremely clunky and outdated. If public history is about engaging the public, then Phase 1 does the worst job: the sites are heavy on text and the content isn’t easily navigable. Thankfully, public historians have realized these sites do little to engagement the viewer, so the aesthetics have improved dramatically by Phase 3.
In a more substantial analysis, the websites from Phase 1 through Phase 3 improve because they deal with less and less over time. Phase 1 features sweeping projects: comprehensive histories of large-scale historical events. It is impossible to curate an entire museum based around these topics, let alone a poorly-designed website with terrible HTML formatting. How does one know if his/her submissions were received? Are these requests for information still active? Even if upkeep for the website has fallen by the wayside, there should still be a note on whether the project has been stalled.
Phase 2 focuses on improving the immediate problems of Phase 1. However, Phase 2 sites get bogged down in their visuals. They all rely heavily on Adobe Flash Player, so if you don’t have that installed, you can’t really experience the site to its fullest extent. These sites seem too focused on the spectacle of watching a Flash video: does this medium actually enhance the historical lesson? Without a transcript, how would I know what the narrator is saying? These sites plod along and encourage a very specific order to view things. While probably exciting for children who are on a computer for the first time, the constant clicking and inability to fast-forward hinder any adult human’s experience with learning. Thankfully, Phase 2 projects aren’t as wide-reaching: they appear to know their audience and therefore cater to them. Mostly, they are online versions of IRL exhibits at museums. So nothing new, nothing that one couldn’t experience offline.
Phase 3 scales back its ambitions, but that actually enhances the website. The space is used more comfortably, with text all over instead of confined to one corner. The projects have very specific goals: document oral histories, display images along with important metadata, commemorate an anniversary. These sites are also aware that they exist in a very large Internet and therefore have to compete for attention. They are quick to mention their endowments and universities associated with them, and they have pages dedicated their mentions outside of the website, i.e., in newspapers or journals, on Facebook and Twitter. Phase 3 sites are aware of the limitations of a website and an online presence, but they also embrace the new possibilities. The project most interested in this is Operation War Diary, which encourages viewers to engage in crowdsourcing, to help digitize all the various wartime literature written by soldiers. This project has a narrow focus–transcribing war diaries of World War I soldiers–but it makes the viewer feel truly part of the experience, and it goes above and beyond experiencing a museum exhibition long-distance.
Although it seems like looks shouldn’t matter, they do. A poorly designed website with an excellent concept will not garner many views. However, flash (or Flash) should not be a substitute for substance. Does a website really need an annoyingly long video when three sentences on its mission will suffice? Less is always more online. However, if there is going to be more content, it should come from the viewers, not the creators. Interactivity is the most important part of a website; it should not be a static experience. Static is boring. Dynamic experiences, at their most ambitious, involve crowdsourcing sprawling projects that interest civilian historians. A viewer should feel a part of a larger experience. Learning is important, but learning does not occur without engagement. Digital public history cannot demand a person’s time the same way a required history course in high school can, nor can it engage in clickbait and false advertising as most of the Internet does. It has to strike a balance. Not everyone will be interested, but websites can’t cater to everyone. Public history, especially digitized, needs to know its and its audience’s limitations, and work within those parameters. They aren’t a box; they are a foundation.
Crowdsourcing is the most promising aspect of public history. It is the perfect example of everything that is ambitious and wonderful about public history, and it engages people in ways they never could be even when face-to-face with an artifact or a tour guide in a museum. I’ll be interested in what Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will bring to the field, but the technology is still so new, and I am wary of these tools becoming substitutes for substance in the same way the Flash plug-in is. However, if all these Phases are an indication, things can only improve for digital history as time and technology march on.