Designing Digital History

[This is a thought piece on design and project planning I wrote in 2008 for a course on digital history. I’m placing it here for curation, thought, and discussion.]

As historians continue their venture into digital scholarship, they are confronted with considerations previously handled (for the most part) by others. The design and ease of navigation of digital projects is as important as the content. Traditional modes of historical presentation through text follow a framework within monographs and journal articles. Largely, publishers control the look and feel of history texts. Books are linear in their process, each chapter carefully laying out the details of a story that is meant to be followed from cover to cover. Web sites do not allow us the same control over how people enter and interact with the site. In addition, the hypertextual presentation of history, Vannevar Bush’s skip trails, allows readers to follow concepts and interrelated material embedded in the digital project. 

The interface itself is part of the transfer of information. Text, cinema, and the human-computer interface transmit culture and language – here, meant as methods of communicating particular works. Like paintings, interfaces convey a message in subtle ways and reflect culture. Sites are composed of individual “pages,” sites are “published” online, a majority of sites maintain text and graphics rather than implementing new alternatives of new media, like 3D virtual realms where information is convened differently. Apple’s GUI stretched the definition of a page: windows overlap, allowing users to go back and forth between pages and allow users to scroll through text. HTML extended the concept further, generating pages accessible to many networks and hyperlinked with other pages. The page was no longer the static ink on parchment, but a fully integrated and open-ended tool. What we see on the screen is filtered through the computer, and the computer’s culture is embedded upon other cultural items in cyberspace. In a sense, reality and virtual reality are coming closer together as representations of real things can take place in a digital environment.

The cultural carryover of text and graphics will undoubtedly follow historians since text is our most powerful tool in doing so. By virtue of our calling, we care about communicating our ideas and want to help others understand the past. “Enable me and inspire me to think about and grasp the past,” is the rallying cry Cohen and Rosenzweig suggest in designing digital projects. The appearance and layout of a site can convey a thesis or ideology, so proper design becomes an important consideration.

The ways users approach digital material differs greatly from physical materials. In my own experience, the way I read and approach a dead-tree New York Times differs from an electronic New York Times. I have a prodigious daily media diet that usually leads me to skim large volumes of text. With a physical New York Times, my choice of stories and headlines to skim is very straightforward: I am limited to the stories produced within its pages. Electronically, users are introduced to the most immediate stories above the bottom of a browser window (“above the fold”), but information is continually updated throughout the day. Rather than limited to the confines of paper, the site allows users virtually unlimited access to several more stories and features, accompanied with hyperlinks and, if you double click a word within a story, a dictionary for those otherwise sesquipedalian words. The level of interactivity and volume of information is far greater than what is available in the dead-tree press.

The idea constant updating merits a tangent since it has an important consideration for historians building sustainable digital projects. As our digital projects grow and undergo updates, will users return to explore the new updates on a given site? In some instances, the updates may not significantly alter the thrust of a digital project. Adding to the Valley of the Shadow’s already immense collection may not change the argument, but does provide researchers additional sources to explore. However, what if new sources add additional anecdotes or completely new sections to a digital project? Will previous readers be aware of such changes and will they return to read them? A book on a shelf can be consulted repeatedly with the assurance that the sources and information within have remained the same. Digital projects have the potential of always integrating new tools or information to augment the work, removing itself from the static realm of the book. This certainly serves as an advantage over monographs to be able to confront historical material with new tools or add to the historical record. Yet, will digital projects have repeat readers? Is it necessary for digital historians to have return readers, or should we worry more about attracting new ones?