As part of a class on digital history, on several occasions I’ll be posting thoughts on a chapter of Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web by Cohen and Rosenzweig and comments on one historical website featured in that chapter. You can read this whole book for free at http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/. For more information about this series, see the Intro.
Digital History Chapter 6: Collecting History Online
My actual submitted homework was pretty boring this week, so I’m going off on a tangent here in a minute. While the first five chapters of this book have mainly talked about how to present history on the web, this chapter describes how a historian might use the internet to collect history. This may include archiving websites and news articles about current events, and can also mean collecting firsthand accounts of events that happened in living memory, something akin to oral history.
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it seems to me that most internet users don’t think in such clearly defined terms. Older people and books like these seem to put a lot more emphasis on the internet versus the “real world,” and try to put strict distinctions on what kinds of sites are for what purposes, ie presenting versus gathering information, but I just don’t see these distinctions as 1) common or 2) useful.
I agree from a creator’s point of view that it’s useful to have a clear mission for a site you’re constructing, and as the chapter points out, people with firsthand experience of historical events may be older folks who aren’t comfortable with the internet in all its modern insanity. SeniorNet’s World War II Living Memorial is a good example here. The design is kind of old-fashioned and clunky, but I can imagine that seniors are more comfortable with it than the more organic, interactive, intuitive websites that are popular today. Even though there are a lot of links and options, it’s still pretty easy to navigate the site and there are clear calls for submissions.
This site also provides some extra value for its target audience by having a resources section with links to Veterans Affairs information and WWII websites (although that particular link on the homepage is broken at the moment), and the internet has always been valued by users for its ability to host discussions among geographically- or chronologically-distributed people with similar interests. That is to say, some veterans probably love the discussion boards. I could see this being a site that veterans would really use and benefit from, all while collecting valuable historical memories.
This kind of proves my point about delineation, though. This site is useful because it does so many things. It presents the history in multiple formats (text remembrances and images) for any interested parties (amateurs, professionals, or fellow veterans). It hosts discussion. It provides extra services in the form of links. All this is what makes it valuable and useful.
As I said, I don’t understand the drive to classify sites. There’s not a big disconnect in my mind between presenting and gathering information. For instance, if a site (or even an individual page) doesn’t have a comments section, that absence almost makes the whole site suspect. A site with images of ancient pottery and nothing else is not the site I want to use. I want one with analysis, pictures of various kinds of objects, a comments section for each entry, and a newsfeed with any new discoveries or articles, just for starters. To me, a site that only does one little thing is just not the one I want to use, unless I have NO other way to do that one little thing.
I do realize there are technical considerations on the internet, and that the net offers possibilities other media do not. However, a picture is a picture. The concept of “looking at a picture” is not different on the internet. An essay is an essay. User feedback is user feedback. Visitors are visitors. Conversations are conversations, news is news.
My best theory is that people who aren’t familiar with the internet really do feel like it’s completely different, just because the method of access is different. Or maybe it’s the fact that all these things happen in one place/at one time that makes each of those things seem different? Thoughts?