Thursday, December 04, 2008

Thoughts on the History Web

While the web has come of age over the past 4 or 5 years, it seems that many historians and curators are still unsure about what to do with it. Back in 1996, a website with visible text, reasonably-sized images and quality content superimposed on a sane and non-flashy background was a work of genius. Today, the quality scholarly content is still out there, but its creators are tearing their hair out worrying about web 2.0, attracting and holding audiences.

As in all things, purpose is key. Just because the web may be unfamiliar, that is not an excuse to throw critical thought out the window. It's not scary; it's just a new way to reach different audiences. If you are embarking on a new website or updating an old one, ask yourself, who do you want to serve? You need to answer this question first before you can calmly determine how best to attract them.

If your audience is scholarly, then don't feel you need to pretend it is not. I've been amazed at the lack of online humanities journals that engage the capabilities of the web. Even the Journal of the Oral History Society does not employ a format in which audio excerpts can be added to text. This would be an excellent feature to pursue online.

Graduate students struggle daily with the creation of "web exhibits." Unsure whether they are attempting to engage a scholarly or general audience, they agonize over text and images, tone and volume. The web offers something museums have long dreamed about and struggled to create: layers.

Don't despair and lock away your scholarly text. Just connect it through layers to your visitors' first impression of the site. If you want a casual visitor to stop and stay, snag her with a slide-show of click-able images. If you want to know more, go here! Even more? Go here!

Don't be afraid of connecting your site to something in another information dimension. Here's a scholarly paper. Here is the blog to go with it.

The internet is about creating communities. There's no reason to believe that suddenly all communities are the same. Just know who you're looking for and direct them to different experiences of your content.

Because no post would be right without examples, consider the excellent Lost Museum. Here is a site that can be experienced by casual users with a rich online environment to explore. Students can use clues in the exhibit to solve a mystery related to the history of the burning of P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Teacher's can use essays posted in the classroom to teach using the primary sources cataloged in the archive. There's a hook, and then there's layers of true quality content below.

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