Digital History: Paid v. Free and Directories v. Search Engines

See the intro to this series for more information. This is a homework assignment commenting on our reading for this week and one of the websites we visited.

Digital History Chapter 1: Exploring the History Web

One of the major debates about history websites seems to be paid versus free access. This relates to the ongoing debate about the quality of any internet sources. One assumes that professional sites would be higher-quality, but the History Channel and National Geographic may or may not provide reliable infomation. Let’s not forget about Ancient Aliens, or the Mermaids mockumentary brouhaha on the Discovery Channel. As the book points out, these kinds of sites are designed to support particular TV shows on the networks. Even strict documentaries are aired primarily to bring in viewers, not to present accurate information, even if that’s a secondary goal. The sites are designed to supplement shows or advertise for them, not to be comprehensive studies of particular topics.

On the other hand, amateurs tend to focus on a topic they’re passionate about and compile a lot of information on that topic, rather than maintaining systematic archives of sources, educational materials for particular grades, or whatever. Then you have the paid history websites maintained by reputable and academic sources, which probably have the most trustworthy information, but the average person isn’t going to pay that fee when there’s free information elsewhere. It seems to me there are only a few options: Either make most of the information free and establish the academic pages as vital on the web, or stop complaining when people don’t use them and end up with inaccurate information. Museums seem to be doing the best job of this right now, putting collections and some interpretation online for free.

Website: www.besthistorysites.net

Chapter 1 talked about directories, and the basically hopeless task of manually creating a directory to all the history sites on the web. Google gets WAY more use than the Yahoo web directory, and why wouldn’t it? Isn’t it kind of snooty to try to wrangle the internet that way? Google, or another search engine, is a more fluid way to find exactly what you’re looking for. At the same time, a directory would be so useful!

www.besthistorysites.net is one of the directories mentioned in the chapter. It looks reputable, claiming to be “an award-winning portal that contains annotated links to over 1200 history web sites as well as links to hundreds of quality K-12 history lesson plans, history teacher guides, history activities, history games, history quizzes, and more,” created by former teachers focusing on integrating technology into teaching. It has a professional design and the topically-sorted resource lists are easy to navigate. Many of the links are to museum websites, but a lot of them are also centered around TV specials. The types of links vary depending on the topic. Still, this would be a great resource for finding multimedia and secondary sources, with a few primary sources.

The main failing I see with directory sites like this is just that they’re limited to the resources a human has catalogued, and you’re limited to that cataloguing system. You have to start with a general idea and see what you can find listed for that topic, while a search engine allows you to look for something in particular.

All this stuff opens a big can of worms. Can you trust a site that was created to support a TV show? Would people trust academics, even if they did make peer-reviewed journals and other sites free? Paying a fee is one indicator that a site is legit, would that go away without the fee? Do academics even want muggles on their sites or care about providing accurate information to the public? Are amateur historians doing what academics OUGHT to be doing? Is there any point in trying to create a directory of websites on any topic, much less history?



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