Old Issue, New Format

How does web design affect historical scholarship? Site design affects the communication of your historical research just like your writing style, genre, and sources.  As discussed last class, some people may be hesitant to use digital technology because they just want to “do history.”  I would say there is no way to get around design when doing history because these design and information architecture issues have always been there but may have gone unnoticed.  Issues like contrast, proximity, consistency, and alignment also effect printed books.  However, as Cohen and Rosenzweig mention, these issues may not be as noticeable because the monograph has been the standard academic communication tool for so long.  This should encourage Townsend’s avoiders to start testing out digital history.   One of the benefits of doing digital history is that it makes the design and information technology aspects more apparent.

Digital historians should focus on how the design can enhance or take away from the point they are trying to make.  Cohen and Rosenzweig brought up an excellent point that people should not just use a new technology just because it is new.  As Madero’s “Paper Prototyping” exemplifies, sometimes using the standard technology has advantages over using the newest technology.  I agree but would just add that historians should not limit their thinking about the possibilities of what technology can do.  The web has had some tremendous advances in its short history.  Scholars should use the best method for their scholarship, even if that is the old technology, but they should not stop imagining the future possibilities for technology.

I also found that Krug’s “How We Really Use The Web” brought up a fundamental tension between the viewer and the historian.  As Krug mentions the viewer is in a hurry, just scans website, and guesses at what link to press instead of making rational decisions.  However, as Cohen and Rosensweig said the most important part about digital history is historical scholarship.  Should the historians change their output in response to the viewer?  How can the historian retain substance at the same time attracting users to actually look at their website?  Historians should adapt to the new circumstances.  Historians can write good scholarship without changing their ways but the value of their writing will be reduced if few people actually read it.  It is possible for historians to retain their substance while at the same time making some compromises to adapt to the viewer.  At the very least they can learn proper website design and chunk their text so it fits better on a computer screen.  Historians should work even harder to find scholarship and express it in a way that relates to users.  This will attract users who find things they are interested in on the web.  Adapting to the new web format might also lead to better scholarship by opening up new areas of research that historians may not have thought of without the user’s feedback.  Historians may also be able to take advantages of the text search technologies to ask questions they would not have been able to answer a few years ago.

I notice that Cohen and Rosezweig were very critical of JSTOR for charging for the service, limiting access to their computer readable material to just searches, and incomprehensible URL’s.  While I agree with all of these points it would have been nice to hear these issues from JSTOR’s perspective.  JSTOR does have its faults but it is also one of the most useful tools that historians have to use.  We should think about why JSTOR is motivated to do the things they do, which may lead to better solutions for how to improve things.  This led me to ask whether digital historians have a bias compared to historians who would not describe themselves as digital historians? Townsend’s article definitely shows that more active technological historians tend to be younger.  It would be interesting to see if there are any other substantive differences between these two groups.

I hope I understood Laferrier’s main point that website designers should have good communication with their clients and if one aspect of a website is changed this affects everything else so it could be costly to implement.  However, I was really lost on what the deliverables actually meant.  If anybody could help explain these to me I would really appreciate it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Old Issue, New Format

  1. “I notice that Cohen and Rosezweig were very critical of JSTOR for charging for the service, limiting access to their computer readable material to just searches, and incomprehensible URL’s.”
    Thanks for bringing this up — I had the feeling that Cohen and Rosenzweig were also being overly critical. True, J-STOR and ArtSTOR charge a fee for independent scholars and researchers, while waiving fees for researchers affiliated with a subscribing educational institution. But because of the peer review process and high publishing standards, I don’t think charging a fee is unwarranted.

  2. I agree that JSTOR has a great wealth of information, but I also think it does a disservice to its users by having such a terrible search interface. Offering only full text (as opposed to keyword or subject) searching leads to extremely imprecise hits. I never go directly to JSTOR to search; rather I find citations in other databases and go there to find the full text. Whether or not JSTOR or other databases should charge for their services is a huge debate and probably not one that can be solved in a blog post, but I do think that if JSTOR is going to charge and is the only repository of many resources, they need to vastly improve their services.

  3. I agree that the tension between Rosenzweig and Cohen and the Krug article is really important. I’m co-leading discussion on Monday, and that will definitely be one of the questions that I want to get people’s reaction on.

    As far as the Laferrier article, I tried to relate it to history. Laferrier stressed the importance of creating information architecture that facilitated the website’s purpose. For historians, I think, the purpose of a website is related to its underlying argument so I think the important point to take away from Laferrier is that the information architecture of your site should further your historical argument or at the very least not detract from it. For example, take the Sherratt site on invisible Australians. It’s actually really amazing how his site design furthers his thesis with very little in the way of explanatory text.

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