This week in Digital History, we have been asked to explore and evaluate some of the history websites out there. I am not particularly familiar with the uses of history and the web, as I don’t remember ever using the internet for education or research when I was in highschool and I definitely was not encouraged to use websites during my undergrad (unless it was to look up articles in online scholarly journals). So, once again this year, I am finding myself in unfamiliar territory.
Fortunately, it seems that evaluating a website is much like evaluating a book. You can gain a lot of information about the website’s purpose, intended audience and reliability by determining the author or creator, looking at the copyright date and examining the references or bibliography (or considering the lack thereof).
There are many great sites out there, but 2 in particular stand out from the list provided by Prof. MacDougall.
The title of this website doesn’t reveal much about its content, but it will become clear shortly.
DoHistory is a website based on the diary of Martha Ballard, which was also the subject of the multiple prize-winning book by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
Martha Ballard lived from 1735-1812 and was a midwife in a small town in Massachusetts. From the age of fifty until just a few weeks before her death, Martha kept a diary detailing the events of her work and life. The diary was passed down through the family for generations, until Martha’s great, great-granddaughter donated it to the Maine State Library in 1930. The diary sat there without much attention from historians, until it was discovered by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1982. Ulrich published her study of the diary, entitled A Midwife’s Tale, 8 years later. Ulrich’s book was incredibly well-received and was even developed into a PBS documentary. DoHistory was launched in response to the popularity of the book and film to provide audiences with more insight into Martha Ballard and a behind-the-scenes glimpse into historical research, writing, publishing and film making.
When I first saw this website, it didn’t appeal to me visually. The home page looked outdated and initially I found it a bit difficult to navigate. However, it didn’t take me long be very impressed with this site.
In addition to having all 10,000 entries of Martha’s diary transcribed and digitized into a browseable and searchable document, this site provides the reader with information on how to decipher Martha’s handwriting (including insight into her spelling, dating system and common abbreviations). At any point in reading Martha’s diary, one can toggle between a digital copy of the original diary or the typed transcription.
For those interested in Martha’s diary and history, the site provides an analysis on several predominant themes and events from the diary (such as premarital pregnancy, courtship and marriage and a scarlet fever epidemic) and even provides the relevant passages from the diary for the reader to examine. There are also excerpts from Ulrich’s book, clips from the PBS film based on the diary, as well as a detailed description of the process of making a historical film.
However, DoHistory offers so much more than information on Martha Ballard. The site also provides instructions and tools for conducting your own historical research. Using Martha Ballard as a case study, the site provides the reader with practical information on how to use primary sources, read 18th century handwriting, conduct an oral history, search and read deeds and examine a graveyard, among other things. The site then provides you with a small digital archive, containing diaries, letters, maps, photographs (and more!) so that you can put into practice what you have learned about primary sources and try to interpret them yourself. My favorite part of this site was the “magic lens,” which allows you to move a lens through a sample page of Martha’s diary to reveal the typed transcription. It is a great tool for learning to read handwriting.
DoHistory also provides suggestions for teachers on how to use the website in the classroom. The website and tools are designed such that they can be used for many different age levels. I think teachers could definitely use this website for students in junior high (and maybe even younger, although passages from the diary would need to be chosen carefully, so as to avoid some mature matters) and even through to university classes.
As you can see, this website is a great example of the potential of history on the web. Not only does it give people access to an important historical document (without much impact on the original, which is safely maintained at the Maine State Library), but it also provides great information on conducting historical research, as well as educational tools for teachers and students alike.
Further, this website is already 10 years old, which is like centuries in the digital world. After having a really thorough look at this website (and I barely highlighted all of its features in this blog, so I recommend you check it out), I’m really excited to see what else is out there for history students, professionals and enthusiasts. It took me so long to really examine DoHistory and pick out the best features to highlight in this blog, that I don’t have enough time to write about the second site that I liked. I will have to save that for another time!
I was just reading the announcements on the UWO Public History Site and I see that Laurel Thatcher Ulrich will be the keynote speaker at the Material Culture, Craft & Community: Negotiating Objects Across Time and Space Conference this May at the University of Alberta.