Websites are more than repositories…

Looking through three online websites, it became clear that there are the good, the bad, and the ugly examples of how history can be effectively portrayed/engaged with online…

The Good: National Museum of African American History and Culture

This website is remarkably well-designed, and does an excellent job of extending the organization’s mission and collections into an online space. The essential information (parking, pricing, etc.) is easy to find and prominent toward the top of the page, as realistically this is why many people visit the page. However, this website is elevated by two main factors: giving online access to the ongoing exhibits and the production of original content for the internet.The NMAACH has extensive online collections that it will organize and offer access to based on new themes and categories arranged specifically for online viewing. There are also well-produced videos, articles and posts covering topics entirely independent of exhibits, furthering the organization’s mission and increasing the accessibility of reliable, insightful interpretation for public audiences.

The Bad: Ashburnham Historical Society, Inc.

The main problem with the Ashburnham Historical Society’s webpage can be summed up in one word: unused. Especially for smaller historical societies with limited budgets and available hours, websites can be an incredibly effective tool for providing interpretation and resources for a wide audience. This page instead remains practically bare, providing no useful information to curious visitors to the site. The “About” page for the website provides a link to the by-law which created it, their Privacy Policy, and the line, “The Ashburnham Historical Society is an organization dedicated to preserving the history of Ashburnham:” nothing more. What could be an opportunity to communicate the institution’s goals, ongoing projects goes unutilized. The organization’s main attraction, a preserved Meeting House in downtown Ashburnham, and receives a page of its own on the website. That page, however, provides bare-bones information about what dates it was built and acquired, followed by the line “The building is a significant facet of historic downtown Ashburnham and is in need of important structural repairs.” Instead of communicating why the building should be preserved, the historical significance of the site and their organization’s mission, or anything else of value, the page provides nothing to a curious observer. The calendar for the page lists only national holidays. While the whole website is barely worth noting (which is exactly the problem), there is a page devoted to chronicling the repairs done to the meeting house. Unfortunately this page is a series of out-of-context photographs.

The Ugly: Fredricksburg Research Resources Website

The Ugly:

This website is ugly in every sense of the word. While technically a useful service, providing online copies of resources otherwise inaccessible to the public for Fredricksburg, VA, the overall presentation and execution are sub-par even for the 1990s, when it looks like this page was made (it was last updated in 2015). The page’s only redeeming quality is the extent of its offering; if one were completing a survey of Fredericksburg or looking for a specific person they could find them in the plethora of directories, lists of inhabitants, etc. that have been translated online. However actually making sense of any of this data is nearly impossible due to the organization of the website. The page relies heavily on links to bring visitors to resources, including the Court Records and Newspaper resources promised by the site. These links are now dead, halting the progress of any researcher or curious individual. The worst offense of this site is the lack of interpretation. Putting information online and making it available is all well and good, but unless something useful is done with these resources then for what purpose was it uploaded? There is legitimately interesting and useful information on this website that could make for engaging studies, including lists of “Free” and “Slave” inhabitants in each of the parishes, juxtaposed with records of agricultural production. Putting these resources in conversation with one another could lead to engaging interpretations or even conversations about race, slavery, and its relationship to the city’s success, but instead sits unhelpfully in a sea of white, unimaginative web design.