Digital History Project Proposal
The primary purpose of this project is to chart the history of Internet digital history projects to this point. The timeline will begin in the late 1990s and as such will not be a comprehensive history, but rather, a history through themes. Themes will include institutional sites, further divided into categories such as universities, libraries, and museums; commercial sites which would include entities such as PBS and the History Channel; and hobbyist sites. The main point of the History of Digital History Project is to attempt to assess the kinds of sites that people, most likely students and hobbyists, are actually using to study history. The point is not to evaluate obscure artifacts of Internet digital history, but to use similar resources that these individuals would use to find Internet digital history projects and resources to fit their interests.
The project will be similar to a digital history resource guide website, but will do more than just list sites. This project will critically examine two sites in each category at three different stages of chronological development to produce a sense of that site and genre as they are now and how they have evolved over time. This analysis via critical essays and summary bullet-lists, will be evidenced with hyperlinks for the purposes of argument and comparison. Included in the project website will also be an annotated “appendix” of other sites that provide a fuller sense of the history of Internet digital history, but were not discussed in the review essays.
Sites for this study are drawn from a variety of sources. To gain a sense of the resources students of history are actually using, much of the research for this project is based on the sites listed in the “History on the Web” type sites that provide links divided by topic, time period, etc. As stated above, this digital project will be closer to these kinds of resources than to a digital project on a specific topic with related archives, images, etc. More helpful, however, are the archived web site reviews from the Journal of American History, Journalfor MultiMedia History, the Public History Resource Center, and the Women and Social Movements project that provide various models for presenting and reviewing Internet digital history.
Since the project will not focus on a particular historic event or topic with resources related directly to it, the History of Internet Digital History Project is a far more general study and needs to be accessible to a wider audience. This project will provide context and background to assess the scholarship, design, and usability of Internet digital history projects from different times. For example, this project will demonstrate the types of criteria that should remain constant over this (limited) time frame and other factors, such as technology and design, for example, that have be considered in the context of their time.
At the same time, however, the audience for this project is already self-selecting with an emphasis on an academic community of teachers, students, and researchers interested in the changing standards, capabilities, and uses of Internet digital history over time. Therefore, this site is intended for scholars of the Internet digital history medium instead of those studying a specific topic and the ways it is explored digitally. Unlike a topic-specific digital project where one could safely assume that a portion of users have some sense of the event and a shared vocabulary, scholars of Internet digital history emerge from quite diverse backgrounds without the benefit of an agreed upon set of terms. As a result, this project will have clearly articulated definitions for terms used.
The history of Internet digital history is important to present in a digital format. First, it would be contrary to the point of Internet digital history to attempt to discuss it in a traditional printed form. The elements of digital history—the hyperlinking, design, and multinarrative form, for example would be difficult to present coherently via words alone. It is necessary to provide the visual narrative to show how these elements are constructed and organized to create history on the Web.
Secondly, then, the essays themselves will employ these same elements. The main emphasis of analysis will be comparative to trace specific changes over time. However, the changes are not always in the content of sites alone, but also in the visual and organizational presentation, levels of interactivity, and different navigational elements. An Internet digital history site also includes aspects like interactivity that must be directly engaged with.
In this sense, the History of Internet Digital History Project will be a gateway to explore a collection of sites. Analysis will be a map to guide exploration of sites in terms of chronology and theme, but ultimately like all digital history projects, users have a great deal of autonomy to explore aspects of the sites that match particular research interests. Further, if this site is used as a resource for anyone just beginning research or using Internet digital history, specific analysis will most likely be less important than the links, summary lists, and ordering system/categories.
The categories to organize this project (the site itself) are an attempt to recognize the major types of Internet digital history by audience, level of scholarship, and technical and design capabilities. Each category—institutional, commercial, and hobbyist—have their own separate purposes aside from the presentation of history. Among the differences in purposes include audience and method of presenting history (interactivity versus text, for example).
Commercial and institutional sites all have a wide audience base. The ways they reach that audience and the types of information they have provided differ significantly. Commercial sites such as PBS maximize the technical and design capabilities available in the Internet digital medium. The depth of information they provide, however, tends to be far less in comparison to the technical and design capabilities. In this way, the commercial sites create interactive environments for the study of history that are often lacking in historical scholarship, including the absence of a clearly stated argument with supporting evidence in a concise narrative. At the same time, however, the expectation for standards of interactivity places constant demand for more advanced animation and Flash features at the possible consequence of scholarship.
Institutional sites often have the capability to reach wider audiences. However, their materials are often specialized and, further, organized to suit a more specialized audience. For scholars of a particular subject the technical capabilities and design elements, while perhaps not always as sophisticated as the commercial sites, couple with vast resources to create immersive environments conducive to concentrated study. As a result, the elements necessary to these sites—databasing, labeling, and citations—have become central features. Institutional sites have an added expectation for thorough and thoughtful scholarly content.
An advanced level of design, interactivity, and searchability, among other features, have come to define digital history on the Internet in the popular mind. Sites that have less sophisticated design or lack other features that result in a “cheesy” appearance have to fight for legitimacy, regardless of the value of the historical resources they may present. These hobbyist sites are often not the most highly visited and when students actually do encounter them, the sites run the risk of being dismissed based on unfavorable comparisons to commercial or institutional sites based on appearances instead of scholarship.
The purpose of this project is to specifically trace these developments. Selected sites will be reviewed in their current state to determine their level of scholarship, effectiveness, design quality, and the degree to which they maximize digital capabilities. Using the Wayback Machine (www.archive.org), the oldest and then progressively newer versions of the sites will also be reviewed with an eye toward change in areas such as rapidity, possible sacrifice of one element over another, and the sponsorship/funding that eased or necessitated a change. While this certainly does not provide a comprehensive study of the history of Internet digital history, this method supplies examples and illustrations.
The Project site will have a section for each topic, a page for additional links (“quick links”) to sites that were discovered in the research , and an “about” that explains the project, its goals, and methods. Each of the three topical sections (commercial, institutional, and hobbyist) will contain two reviews and summary bullet-lists to ensure equal treatment as well as to aid navigation through consistent content. Each page will have a navigation bar along the top with links to the other sections, “quick links”, and the home page.
Main section pages will briefly introduce the main components of that type of site and the two sites reviewed in that section. The general introduction will include description of the audience, the methods of presentation, and trends of change. Links will be provided to each of the review home pages. Each review page will also provide links back to the section home page.
The review home pages will contain columns representing the three different chronological versions of the reviewed site. Links to these versions will also be provided. These columns are meant to be a direct and quick comparison of the important ideas covered in the full essay. For example, there will be headings such as design, evidence, argument, etc. with bulleted lists under each. Ideally, these headings will be consistent across all the sites and their versions. However, this may not be possible and will be developed with further research.
The bulleted items will be the evidence used in support of the critical essays that articulate the changes in the sites over time. The essays, linked from the review homepage, will also make comparisons, where fair and applicable, across the sections to provide a more complete analysis. One might argue that this approach of presenting bulleted lists of information and then the essays is redundant. This approach is intentional to merge a more traditional, text-based scholarship with the way Internet resources are actually used. Further, this approach will hopefully accommodate different levels of engagement in the topic.
Thus far there are not any resources on the Web that pertain to the history of Internet digital history in this way. Sites that compile links related to particular historical topics often have sites of varying ages. One could make a timeline out of the sites listed from these history sites, but there is little, if any, analysis or attention to the nature of the changes over time.
Other sites, the Journal of American History (http://www.indiana.edu/~jah/issues/reviews/wrindex.shtml), Journalfor MultiMedia History (http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/), the Public History Resource Center (http://www.publichistory.org/reviews/index.asp) and the Women and Social Movements project (http://womhist.binghamton.edu/index.html) contain scholarly reviews of historical websites and assorted links to other sites of interest. These resources cover different times: Journalfor MultiMedia History (Fall 1998-Spring 2000); the Public History Resource Center (February 2000-January 2004); Journal of American History (July 2001-Current December 2005); and the Women and Social Movements project (March 2005-Current June 2005). These reviews in themselves demonstrate the evolution of evaluation of history (generally institutional) web sites, but do not necessarily address the changes of sites themselves.
However, this project will draw inspiration from the Journal of MultiMedia History, despite its age. This journal is important for this project because it marks an important time in the history of digital history, not only for the Internet project to be covered here, but also for CD-ROMS and other digital formats. The mission of this journal was to assess digital resources specifically, not as an “add-on” to the more traditional forms of scholarly review, but as important historical scholarship in their own right. This approach takes into account the various factors that will be evaluated in this project.
Design and technology in the site, however, are limited, but appropriate for its time. Despite the different purpose of the History of Internet Digital History project, an ambition of this project is to illustrate some of the ways this type of journal could have evolved in terms of evaluation of historical web sites. The reviews in the Journal site use minimal hyperlinking. Also, the images included in the reviews are images used in the reviewed site that are then copied into the review instead of using screen shots to demonstrate the significance of the placement of that particular image or how that image relates to text or other images.
The essays in this project will improve on these elements. Firstly, the technology to create hyperlinks and screen shots has become far more accessible and easier to use. Secondly, however, the review essays in this project are comparative and depend on the visual elements as well as prose. The Internet digital medium is what makes this approach most fruitful.
The Public History Resource Center reviews have similar limitations as the Journal of MultiMedia History in terms of images and hyperlinks, but are helpful from an organizational standpoint. The end of reviews on the Public History Resource Center include numerical rankings (i.e., 9/10, 10/15, etc.) of “basic criteria” such as “Authority,” “ Permanence and Timeliness,” “Aesthetics/Clarity,” and “Technical Aspects” and rankings for “Public History Specific Criteria.” The History of Digital History Project will use similar categories of scholarship (authority), design (aesthetics/clarity) and technical aspects, not to create a numerical evaluation, but for the bulleted evaluation points. The Public History Resource Center is further exemplary in that it explicitly states definitions, purposes, and standards for evaluation.
The Work and Technical Plan
The changes from these sites to the History of Digital History project site will not be very drastic. The technical and design elements must be manageable for a beginning student in digital technologies with access to Macromedia Dreamweaver and Adobe PhotoShop Elements. The web pages will be constructed in Macromedia Dreamweaver. To simplify the process and to create a unified appearance to the site, the pages will be created from a CSS template with texts, links, screen shots, and other images added where appropriate. Ideally, the image elements will be kept consistent in location and amount throughout the site. However, content and argument are more important than complete consistency of design so time will need to be set aside for any necessary additions or subtractions of content.
Despite the use of templates, even a basic site will be time consuming to create. Practice in Dreamweaver will be an important aspect of this project, with the time spent practicing to develop simple, but attractive and navigatable, accounting for much of the site production time. Additional time spent learning PhotoShop to refine, highlight, or otherwise alter images and/or screen shots when necessary will also need to be set aside. As navigation is so important to site construction and navigation tools will appear on every page, PhotoShop will also be used to create visualize appealing navigation bars.
These technical aspects, however, will need to be balanced with the considerable time necessary to review the selected web sites, develop the critical essays, and draw conclusions about the history of Internet digital history derived from those sites. The sites will need to be visited and closely examined in their entirety for the three dates chosen. The search will entail material for the bulleted lists (three to five statements per category) to evidence the six critical essays, between 600 and 700 words in length.
For the long term, this project would be time consuming and possibly expensive to maintain. This is primarily because present becomes past at an accelerating rate in the Internet digital medium. Further, as technologies once the property of other disciplines become simpler to use and more widely available, they too will be integrated into historical scholarship. However, given their newness, these technologies will not yet have a standard for assessment in Internet digital historical scholarship.
Geographic Information System (GIS), for example, once a complex tool of geographic scientists has made the leap into more popular use. No longer will simple maps be enough for online digital historians; newer Internet digital history projects will require the integration and responsible use of GIS technology. Scholars of the Internet digital history medium, then, will need to understand the technology as well as be able to track its progress in historical scholarship to determine specific advantages it allows Internet digital historians.
This is just one example of what is sure to be a stream of additions to Internet digital history technologies. For a scholar of the history of that medium, history is literally being made everyday. A project of this nature would have to be updated constantly and, in order to remain on par with the material it is evaluating, would need to incorporate newer technologies in the presentation and organization of material. Not only, then, does a scholar of history of Internet digital history need to remain current in new technology trends, developments in scholarship, and the use of technologies, she needs to merge them all together coherently not to argue for the state of things or for the reality of things to come, but to demonstrate how all those elements came to be. The scholar needs to be aware of and be prepared to evaluate all additions to the Internet digital history scholarship, not just those that would improve a particular project.
The Internet as a medium for expression and transmission of information is the most rapidly changing mechanism we have seen. As such, the standards for such modes of discourse change just as quickly. Scholars of Internet digital history have a unique challenge to establish standards for excellence in scholarship that can be used for teaching and learning in the contemporary classroom at all levels. Attempting to evaluate the merits of this type of scholarship and even to define “scholarship” in this context is made even more complicated by the lack of context. Projects such as the History of Internet Digital History attempt to provide some of that context and document the progression of the field to facilitate present and future discussion and development. In order for standards to continue to improve with the expansion of Internet digital historical scholarship, scholars will need to devote attention to evaluate where we have been to determine where we should be going.
--Amy Lechner, December 4, 2005
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Last Updated: December 4, 2005
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