Going digital: in this day and age, it’s not merely an option, it’s mandatory. Although technology is not my forte, I have to face the fact that digital history is an important element in the dissemination of historical information. This applies to both creating digital exhibits and historical websites as well as digitizing existing physical sources. Every historian (including me) should at least have some basic knowledge of and experience in creating or managing a digital resources.
In their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Daniel J. Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig tell us that when creating an online digital historical resource, it’s important to make sure that it’s a site that people will want to visit. This means that the site should be easy to use and laid out in a way that makes sense to a visitor. Although creativity can be a valuable element, the use of colors that are too bright or fonts that are hard to read should be avoided. The content on a site should flow, but not necessarily for miles down a page. Navigation should be clear and labels should make sense. Small multiples are a good way of providing links to more information. The URLs should be straightforward and consist of words rather than long strings of seemingly random letters and numbers.
The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website is a good example of a clear and well laid-out site.
The navigation buttons are at the top of the page and are well-defined in meaning and legibility. The color scheme is basic but not boring with white type on a navy background for the menu and a white background around the links and photos on the rest of the page. This site also utilizes small multiples to display highlighted stories and the URLs make sense.
When it comes to digital documents, Cohen and Rosenzweig note that there are many issues that must be taken in account. There are definitely benefits that can’t be ignored. Digitizing sources ensures that fragile original documents will be preserved and increases accessibility since anyone with internet access would be able to view them. However the process can be expensive and time-consuming, especially if only big projects can be outsourced. Additionally, anything that is delicate or rare must be done in-house since most digitization is shipped out to foreign countries. The desired end product complicates the matter further in that if only the text is reproduced, spacing, indentation, handwritten notes, and context may be lost and OCR software makes mistakes. If the original document is reproduced, the text may not be searchable or legible. Despite these considerations the benefits of digitizing documents far outweigh the costs and is something that every institution should actively pursue.
One website that I’ve found extremely helpful when searching for digital sources is the Hathi Trust Digital Library.
The Hathi Trust holds millions of digitized books and documents on a wide variety of different subjects. The site is easy to navigate and documents are grouped into collections that a visitor can browse or easily search. This site is an excellent resource in that it provides a digital version of original documents that can be text-searched as well as text-only versions of the same documents. This site is also accessible free of charge, which is invaluable when performing research and indispensable in the pursuit of keeping history public.