How To: Designing Digital History

Our digital history seminar is currently in the midst of designing our digital projects and has gotten me thinking about how to design digital scholarship and the tools that are available for helping in the construction of projects.  Beginners to digital history are somewhat daunted by the design process.  The lingo of web design - HTML, CSS, Javascript, XML, metadata, hypertext - seems like an endless alphabet of ambiguous elements in the digital environment. This post means to highlight some tools and resources digital humanists might find useful in constructing their own projects, as well as impart some of my first-hand experience thus far in the design process.

Like it or not, the truth is that good design matters.  Dan Cohen points out that digital history must be useful and used – useful because users can explore and learn from digital projects, and used because users utilize the resource and spread the word about the project.  We’ve all probably stumbled upon poor websites with eye-straining backgrounds, flashing items, text and images spread everywhere, and a lack of a coherent layout or navigation (check out some of the pages featured on Web Pages that Suck).

The most basic element of web design is HTML, and making things look good on the user’s end may require some use of CSS, which defines how HTML elements are displayed in web browsers.  In addition to understanding how web elements work, historians can also use the help of library sciences and computer sciences to assist them in web design (thank you!).  Several open source tools are also available to help historians design their own projects.


FIrefox web browser:  If you’re not using Firefox, you should be.  For starters, Firefox is far more secure and is good at blocking spyware and mal-ware from installing on your computer.  Users can also install extensions and plugins to Firefox to add and improve features on the web browser.  (Some day maybe I’ll write up a post on all the plugins I use on my Firefox browser).

Firebug:  Firebug is a Firefox plugin that gives users a host of web development tools.  With the tool, users can edit, debug, and monitor web encoding (HTML, CSS, Javascript, etc.) live on any page.  This allows you to make changes to a site without having to re-upload the files and view the changes.  The tool also allows you to inspect individual elements of a web page to see how they’re constructed.  If you find a site you like, you can use Firebug to view the separate elements of a site and see how they’re constructed and relate to one another.

Web Developer:  Another Firefox plugin useful for web development.  Web Developer allows users to view CSS, HTML source, Javascript, disable elements in a website, and a whole lot more.

Photoshop:  Or its open-source and free alternative, GIMP.  Photoshop/GIMP is a graphics editing software package that allows users to author graphics, edit images, or convert image formats.  Photoshop is far more powerful that GIMP, and GIMP isn’t necessarily a Photoshop clone.  But for basic image work, GIMP is an excellent tool if one can’t afford the pricetag on or have access to Photoshop.

Dreamweaver: Or its open-source and free alternative, Kompozer.  These two programs are WYSIWYG web authoring software packages.  The nice thing about WISIWYG-based web authoring is it doesn’t require coding knowledge to design sites.  The easiest and most common design is table-based layouts, which Dreamweaver handles very well. For more advanced design, Dreamweaver can handle CSS, Javascript, ASP.NET, ColdFusion, JavaServer Pages, and PHP.

Oxygen XML Editor or XML Marker:  eXtensible Markup Language (XML) is designed for sharing and structuring data on the web that allows users to define mark-up elements.  For example, a newspaper article of mine looks like this (slightly abbreviated):

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<author n="Blair, William M.">William M. Blair</author>
<title level="a" type="main">"500 Indians Seize U.S. Building After Scuffle With Capital Police"</title>
<title level="j">New York Times</title>
<pubPlace>New York</pubPlace>
<date value="1972-11-03">03 November 1972</date>
<biblScope type="page">81</biblScope>


<div1 type="body">

<head type="main">500 Indians Seize U.S. Building After Scuffle With Capital Police</head>
<p>About 500 American Indians protesting injustices, took control tonight of the Bureau of Indian Affairs....</p>

The document conforms to Text Encoding Initiative standards.  Most importantly, XML defines the elements behind my newspaper article and preserves the original text.  My editorial decisions for tagging elements has little impact on the text itself.  My site makes the XML code freely available for users so they can download the source files and edit them and use them as they need.


W3 Schools:  The W3 Schools provide online web building tutorials that conform to W3C standards.  If you’re looking for a good place to start learning about web design, I would start here.

Web Style Guide: The web style guide is an indispensable resource for learning about web design and thinking about design basics.  This is another must-have resource as you design digital history projects.

Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig, “Designing for the History Web”:  Every beginning digital historian should read Digital History before starting their projects, but this chapter especially is important for thinking about project design and sustainability.  I haven’t touched on sustainability in this post, which is a topic Brent and/or I will probably visit soon.  If there’s no sustainability of a project, then pouring your energy into information architecture is meaningless.  Nevertheless, this resource from two historians is excellent for thinking about good design.

Concluding Thoughts

The design process is just that – a process.  There is no single framework that will apply to designing projects, and the design of a site is likely to undergo several transformations and redesigns.  I like the current design of my digital project, which you can view here on our developmental server, though I doubt this is the final draft of my design – this is only what I’ve been able to put together in the last four months (note the construction is still on-going, so not everything works).  I’m also experimenting with some Web 2.0 ideas that I would like to implement into my project so users can query, search, and manipulate material.

Don’t try and reinvent the wheel with digital history design.  At this stage, I think the important thing is to get your digital scholarship on the web without wasting time and money on design.  It might also be time to start taking advantage of prior digital scholarship and build off of projects that already exist.  For instance, digital historians might find a new argument to make out of the material at the Valley of the Shadow.

The best way to learn this stuff, I’ve found, is to experiment through trial and error.  Embrace the technology and don’t be afraid to dive in.

Do you have any other advice on design or useful tools?  Leave a note in the comments or drop me an email.

November 29, 2008 @jaheppler