Oct. 29, 2006

Layers of History

When considering how to make a digital resource with a democratic quality, it seems that many web designers have chosen to layer their information. In doing so, they have attempted to give the history being presented a broad appeal while at the same time making the information valuable for more advanced researchers. Nevertheless, there still appears to be disparity between the site for visitors and the site for researchers.

Museums are concerned with attracting people to their website and institution, so the information that is presented should be easy to access and have a visual appeal. HistoryWired is an example of a compelling website that shows the user what items in the online exhibit are the most popular (indicated by the size of the box for that item) while also providing access to layers of more detailed information. The site is equipped with buttons that can highlight certain themes or time periods, which allow the user to search for patterns within the items being presented. HistoryWired thus democratizes history by making information easily-accessible while also providing some value to researchers as well.

On the other hand, the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History online exhibit renders the historical process more transparent by putting all the primary documents at the disposal of the blooming researcher. By contextualizing the documents for mysteries that haven’t been solved, the site allows anybody to be a researcher and come to their own conclusions based on the evidence that they choose to use.

Is it possible to focus these resources more towards sophisticated research though? The Text Encoding Initiative is an effort to standardize mark-up that would allow computers to more effectively “read” a text. Mark-up involves bolding text or creating headers and footnotes, but it can also be adding definitions to words, indicating St. John as a person rather than a city in one case or that Animal refers to a Muppet rather than a creature found in nature.

We can imagine the results if research institutions using TEI collaborated with museums creating publicly-accessed and publicized digital exhibits. Institutions would be able to connect their research to a popular institution and reinforce the idea that research should have a public value. At the same time, museums could demonstrate the research value that they have in their institutions.

By creating layered websites, we are succeeding as public historians in creating history that is accessible to people outside of the profession, without cheapening the selling short this information.