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  The home page looked outdated and initially I found it a bit difficult to navigate.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.

Martha's Diary

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.


A Grain of Salt

Well, it was bound to happen.  I knew that someday I would look back at one of my blog entries and regret writing it and undertake in learning advance computer skills simply in an effort to erase all evidence of its existence from the internet.

I just didn’t expect that moment to come so soon.

I have just returned from my first Public History class, where we were introduced to some of the main themes and debates that surround the field of Public History and, as with any good upper/graduate level university class, I did not leave with any concrete answers or definitions and, in fact, I have more questions now than I did 6 hours ago.  I just don’t see how I’m going to wade through all the debates, discussions, definitions, terms and rhetoric to find “my voice.” I just don’t see it happening, so I will likely be changing the title and goal of my blog to something a little less ambitious.

One of the items that I struggle with (and I have already been thinking about this one for a few years) was brought up when we were discussing “living,” “open-air” or “pioneer” museums.  These are the types of museums that depict a particular time by having an area maintained or restored (or, in some cases, fabricated) to show visitors what life was like “back then.” This often involves people dressed up in period costumes, engaging in activities (chores, crafts, etc) that were typical of the time being presented.

This discussion was brought up in response to an article we read by Patricia Wood entitled “The History Site as Cultural Text: A Geography of Heritage in Calgary, Alberta.” In her article, Wood examines two such living museums in Calgary (“Heritage Park Historical Village” and “Fort Calgary Historic Park”). I am referencing this article not to criticize or analyze it, but because it is the most recent piece of literature I’ve read on the topic and it is, I think, fairly indicative of the concerns that exist for these types of museums.

In Wood’s case, she criticized the sites in her case study for their historical inaccuracies (use of items that did not actually exist in the set time period or place) , tendency to glorify the time period (by omitting certain economic or social realities that existed) and their focus on commercialization (entrance fees, souvenirs, corporate investors), among other things. Intellectually, I agree with the issues that Wood, and others, have raised.  It is important to be historically accurate; it is important to be inclusive of all cultural, ethnic and religious groups and it is important to tell the “whole” history and not just the fun or happy parts.

Unfortunately, you simply can’t tell this history in these types of museums.  Who wants to visit a museum with sewage overflowing into the streets or where the employees / volunteers yell racial slurs at each other from across opposite sides of the track?

Although I understand, and to an extent agree with, the arguments against these museums, I find it hard to be too critical of them.  I think these museums serve a certain purpose and benefit certain people and I’m inclined to say that they aren’t damaging to society or brainwashing our children to believe a false version of history.  After all, weren’t we all taught a “simple” version of history as children, which  grew more complex as we went through school? If you compare your 4th grade understanding of Confederation to your 12th grade or university understanding, aren’t they completely different stories? Can’t there be different “levels” of history?

However, I do recognize that I have a different perspective on the matter because I am a student of history. I have been taught how to examine a museum, film or monument and, even if I’m unfamiliar with the subject matter, deconstruct the language, tone and rhetoric being used and evaluate whether or not it is a comprehensive or reliable version of history.

I think that those who criticize living museums (and other popular uses of history) fear that visitors are leaving them with a false understanding of history. Critics fear that these visitors accept the history that is presented to them with no questions asked.  I’m not convinced that this is the case (and for anyone reading, especially those outside the field of history, please feel free to weigh in).

As I mentioned in my introduction, I left class today with no definitive answers.  Wood criticized living museums, but was unable to come up with a solution to make them more historically accurate, while still appealing to audiences of all different ages, backgrounds and levels of education AND all the while being economically feasible in a field that has not exactly been known to be lucrative.

Unfortunately for you, after you’ve spent all this time reading (or have you all given up?), I too don’t know what the solution is.  I don’t want to present the public with historically inaccurate museums if they are going to walk away thinking they know everything there is to know about the subject.  However, I don’t want to dismantle every museum, heritage site or monument that doesn’t uphold the ideals and standards of academic scholarship (nor, just to clarify, does Wood – this is me oversimplifying the debate).

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t worry too much about the different versions and levels of history out there and we should instead focus on arming the public with the tools required to analyze and interpret these types of histories themselves.  Instead of teaching “names and dates” history in junior-high and high school and saving all the theory for university, perhaps we can incorporate more research tools, analytic skills and critical thinking into the history curriculum.  Perhaps then, the historians will be able to relax and enjoy the horse and buggy ride, while the public visits the museum with a grain of salt.

DO London

This weekend is Doors Open in London, Ontario.  There will be 50 venues open for the public to see – all free of charge.  Venues range from museums to churches to green spaces.  I’ve participated in Doors Open in Winnipeg (both as a visitor and as a volunteer of a participating site) and have always enjoyed it.  It’s a great opportunity to get out into your community and see some of the buildings (and, in some cases, their behind-the-scenes secrets) that you might pass daily but know nothing about.  Having just moved to London, Doors Open comes at a perfect time for me. I can’t wait to put on my tourist cap, grab my map and my back pack and get out there (ok – the tourist cap is figurative, but the rest is real).  If anyone has any suggestions on what to see this weekend, please let me know!

I’m Ready!

Most of you who are reading this blog already know who I am, where I am and what I am doing.  But, in the spirit of blogging, I will imagine a broad audience of strangers who are just dying to know more about me.

My name is Joanna Dawson and I am an MA student at the University of Western Ontario  in the Public History program. I am originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, where I “grew up” (at what point do you actually stop growing up – I’m not sure I’m finished).  I moved to Winnipeg when I was a teenager and lived there until my recent move to London, Ontario to attend Western.  I obtained my BA(Hons) from the University of Manitoba in 2007, where I majored in history, with a specialization in Canadian history.  As part of a Digital History class in the Public History program at Western, we have been assigned the task of making and maintaining a blog, which will be used to reflect on our readings, assignments and experiences, as well as to interact with others in the field.

As many students who have preceded me and as many who will follow, I don’t have any experience blogging or writing for the public generally.  However, instead of worrying about this or revealing all of my insecurities, I decided to think about my goals for this blog, and for my Public History degree in general (not in an effort to appear as though I have everything figured out but, rather, in an attempt to stay positive, focused and open-minded).  Writing down your goals (and publishing them for the world to see) is the best way to accomplish them.

I would say that my main struggle with history, academia and sometimes life in general, is that I find it difficult to pick a side of a debate.  It’s not that I don’t have opinions or that I don’t know how to deconstruct arguments and it’s not that I’m afraid I will pick the “wrong” side.  I simply think that it is so important to be well informed of all aspects of the story. It is important to listen to what others have to say and to consider how this affects your opinion.  I value this in other people, but I think that I have come to value this quality so much, that it sometimes prevents me from feeling strongly about certain topics.  More than once during my undergrad degree, I received positive comments on an essay (well written, good research, etc) that were modified and somewhat dampened by a request to see a stronger argument, a more definitive conclusion or more of my own voice on the topic.

Therefore, my goal this year is to work on my voice.  Through this blog, I hope to expand on my ability to research and understand all aspects of a topic and then formulate and, most importantly, express my own ideas and opinions.  Anyone who reads this blog has my permission to question me, challenge me, disagree with me and debate with me – as I know all of these things will help me strengthen my (virtual) voice.