Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Friday, October 27, 2006

History Websites: Less is More

As the title of this post suggests, less is definitely more when it comes to design
for history websites. Of the five websites I looked at, most used an investigative or inquiry approach to engage their audience. I think this is key if you are going to have an effective site. Strong visuals also help but you never want too many so that the user is overwhelmed or the text is lost in a sea of over-the-top graphic images.

Aurore: The Mystery of the Martyred Child

This site presented an historical mystery through narrative and primary source investigation. I think the overall goal of this site is to engage students in Canadian History. I wouldn’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this site because that would be the wrong descriptor for a history site that deal with the death of a child. I was, however, impressed with the presentation of the historical evidence. It focuses on the investigation into the death a young French girl in 1920. The idea is that the site user is the detective and has to use the primary sources provided to solve a mystery. This is a great hook and there are a lot of primary sources provided regarding the original investigation and subsequent trial. The documents are also provided in translation because most of the originals were written in French.

There is a lot of text, but the simple presentation makes it easy to read and the creators have already supplied some analysis of the sources. From an analytical standpoint I am not sure I agree with this approach but in this case the sheer volume of information necessitates condensing the information in this way I think. There are still many primary sources within the site archive(trial transcripts, newspaper articles etc.) which have to be evaluated and understood by the user. This use of primary sources is a great tool for teaching historical research and critical thinking. Tabs across the top highlight the main topics in relation to the site and once you have clicked on a topic further options are offered along a side menu. This was probably the best way to arrange things given the volume of information and length of the explanatory narrative. By breaking it down into pages, I don’t think the user will feel overwhelmed by the information.

A few issues I had with the site: I definitely would post the warning about the content of the story at the top of the page. It also needs to be larger. Some of the facts of the case are disturbing and if you are going to have students navigating the site they should be prepared to read some of the content.

Because this is essentially a teaching site, the creators also have a login for teachers which provides a Teacher’s Guide for the site. This is a great tool to help educators and to enhance the learning of their students.

History Wired
The premise of the Smithsonian’s History Wired website is great: Taking exhibits from its collection which are currently not on display and creating a virtual tour using these artifacts. It allows access based on item, topic and theme. You can also click on multiple themes which will then allow you to see objects which fall under a number of different categories. Many of the items have strong social history or pop culture implications which I think Is a great fit for a virtual exhibit. They are essentially the hooks that will draw people in and keep them engaged in navigating the site.

The site provides access to many items which are not always seen in the museum and access for those who cannot travel to Washington. The cross referencing tools and the time-line search also make it a valuable research tool.

However, there are a few issues with the design. For instance, I will echo my classmate Kevin Marshall’s statement that the interface is not very user friendly. The tiles are small and it takes a little bit of reading before you can navigate the site successfully. Essentially you have to play around a bit in order to figure out what the site can really do. In saying that however, the lines linking the object to the genre or theme are a nice touch because they show the historical link between items and ideas.

One interesting item was the rating scale that users could access. Basically a user could rate his or her level of interest in the object by rating it on a scale of one to ten. The rating will influence the layout of the object map. At first I was unsure what the point was but the museum could use it as a reference tool in determining which artifacts are most interesting to its users. Ultimately the results of such a survey could influence the creation of virtual and real exhibits.

Imaging the French Revolution
This site focuses mainly on the scholarship concerning the French Revolution. There are essays, images and discussion regarding this topic. Mainly for academics and students, this site has a fairly simple layout and is easy to navigate. There are only four sections( Essays, Images, Discussion and About) and each has links to the various areas of scholarship it represents. There is a good use of white space so that you are not overwhelmed by text and the images used enhance the subject matter. The one issue I have is that there is a tile presentation that you must wait for every time you go to the website home page. A skip button would be a great addition to this site so that you can immediately get to the information if you have been to the site before.

The collection of these resources on one site would be very valuable in terms of doing research in the area of the French Revolution. The images section provide links to essay and discussion so that the image was contextualised by scholarly arguments and writing.

National Geographic: Remembering Pearl Harbor
First impressions are lasting and my first impression of this site was not good. I don’t particularly like sites that are a crazy mess of moving images, pop-ups, visuals advertising etc. They always make me feel that someone is trying to cover up the fact there is not a lot of good content; a smoke and mirrors type of thing. Turns out I wasn’t that far off the mark.

The site uses a multi media approach, which includes, oral histories and strong visuals. It includes a multi-media Attack Map which uses sound and images to take the viewer through the entire attack on Pearl Harbor. In terms of content, this is probably the best part of the site. There is a narrative which plays while the viewer navigates through a set of aerial maps detailing the positions of the Japanese in the Pacific. You can click on icons which then give you further details and you also have the option of listening to first hand accounts of those who were there. Transcripts of accounts of Japanese sailors are also included.

The problem that I had with this part of the site was that the zoom function made navigation of the map a difficult. I was also unable to maximise the window which would have made viewing the map easier.

The section Pearl Harbor Ships and Planes, World War II Time Line, and More was full of information but at times it was too much and perhaps overwhelming. This is an area of the site that could have benefitted from more visuals and less text.

The Memory Book was probably conceived with the best of intentions but turned out to be a disaster in my opinion. The premise was to have veterans of Pearl Harbor and their families post tales and remembrances of the event. There were a few remembrances but there were also numerous anti-Japanese sentiments and just overall ridiculous comments. Personally, I felt it undermined the serious nature of the event and the sacrifice made by so many. My advice would be to get rid of this section altogether or have the site administrator change the remembrances and not allow them to be accessed by the general public.

The Valley of the Shadow
This site, detailing life in two Civil War Communities( one in the North and one in the South), provides archives of primary sources which can be accessed and analysed. The organization is fairly simple in its use of titles and white space which is a good thing because there is a huge amount of information on this site.

The one thing that was distracting however was the sort of metaphorical floorplan or repository that was used as a map to the site. The floor plan looked like a honeycomb and was strictly text, no images. I thought it a little dull and sort of incongruous to the powerful photos and images presented on specific pages of the site.

The site does provide access to great primary sources such as newspapers, letters and diaries, census and veterans records which would give a researcher an excellent comparison between attitudes in the North and South during the war.

After looking at these websites I have come to the conclusion that a history website should be user friendly, engage an audience( whatever that target audience is) and provide sources which will allow the user to analyse history without too much bias. Site developers also need to consider the medium and plan the site so that it is compatible with web access.


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