Sunday, October 15, 2006

Behind the Scenes of a Digital History Site

In a thoughtful post about doing digital history, Josh Greenberg wrote

On an abstract level, I think that there’s a tension between making tools and using tools that comes from a deeper question of audience. When you’re using a tool (or hacking a tool that someone else has already built), there’s a singleminded focus on your own purpose – there’s an end that you want to achieve, and you reach for whatever’s at hand that will (sometimes with a little adjustment) help you get there. When trying to build a tool, on the other hand, there’s a fundamental shift in orientation – rather than only thinking about your own intentions, you have to think about your users and anticipate their needs and desires.

As Josh noted, I've tended to focus on using tools and hacking them in this blog. I haven't been particularly concerned to provide an overall theory of digital history, or even enough background that I could assume that each post would be accessible to everyone in the same way. (I guess the style reflects my own history with Lisp/Scheme and the Unix toolbox). For his part, Josh has been helping to build Zotero, a tool that shows that his concern with the needs and desires of users isn't misplaced.

At a still different level, there is the work that goes into making and maintaining a great digital history site. Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig's book Digital History is an excellent introduction to this part of the field, as is the work that Brian Downey has been doing this year. Brian is the webmaster of the American Civil War site Antietam on the Web. AOTW has all kinds of nice features: an about page that explains their stance on copyright, the site's Creative Commons license and the privacy implications of the site monitoring that they do; an overview of the battle of Antietam with beautiful maps; a timeline that uses the SIMILE API; a database of participants in the battle; transcripts of official reports; a gallery of images; and dozens of other neat things.

At 10 years of age, AOTW is an obvious labor of love and a source of ideas and inspiration. Since March of this year, however, Brian has also been blogging at behind AOTW, "the backwash of a digital history project". The combination of the AOTW site and Brian's blog provide the student of digital history with an unparalleled view behind the scenes of a successful project. In March, for example, Brian posted about footnotes in online history, allowing the reader to compare his code with the implementation on the AOTW site. In another post that month, he discussed copyright and the public domain, something that he has a more-than-academic interest in. In April he laid out a top-down strategy for practicing digital history, continued in June. In July, he discussed the question of whether a site should host advertisements in "Pimping the History Web?" and reviewed some 19th-century online works from the Perseus Project. In August, he implemented a timeline widget and gazeteer for AOTW. This month he has a series of great posts to help someone get started without "an IT shop or a CHNM": tools for putting history online, PHP+database+webserver and jumping in with both feet.

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