Digital Public Historian

Thinking about design… For those who haven’t needed to

This week’s readings for Clio I got into basic nuts and bolts of disseminating history on the Web, particularly planning and design of websites. For me, they were quite useful as I think about putting my own projects on the Web.

Some of the design principles discussed in the readings were familiar to me from taking an exhibition design class and working at an exhibition design firm–rules about contrast, length and width of text, etc., hold consistently true for both Web sites and exhibitions, since both are means of conveying content beyond the medium of black text on paper.

Others are quite different, owing to the different nature of the media. The information architecture of a museum exhibition differs from that of a Web site, and that of course influences how one goes about designing. In the museum world, one must plan for conveying content in a three-dimensional way, leading to a different user experience and different impact (as my classmate Claire points out in her insightful post).

Before going into the museum exhibition world, I had not thought much about design principles. Indeed, I probably would not have thought as much about design without that experience and without diving into digital history, as I am now. While reading this week’s selections from A List Apart and Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History, it struck me how thinking of information architecture and design is, in some ways, a revolution for many historians.

Since the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press (and one could argue before that time, taking into account scribes), historians have relied upon others to design our means of knowledge dissemination. As Cohen and Rosenzweig correctly note, citing Mike O’Malley, the typically black written word, whether in article or book form, has been the traditional way of disseminating historical knowledge for centuries.

We submit the our text–using a general information architecture that has been relatively unchanged–and someone from the publisher lays it out on the page. If we’re lucky, we get to include images. From my time at the Alamo I remember the day the curator’s galleys for his latest book came back. The only revelatory part of that experience was the cover. The medium simply did not permit much variation in the text, and the information conveyed remained the same as when the curator had handed printed Word documents to reviewers and others.

Even in museum exhibitions, the design is often outsourced to specialty firms. While those working on the content side are taught to think about design (although others discourage such thinking, saying it’s not the content person’s job), the designers actually execute it. They think about color, font, the space, and even the the information architecture. The content person works with the designer–perhaps more closely than the author of a book–and perhaps suggests tweaks, but is in the end not the person responsible for the design.

In other words, traditionally historians have been responsible for the information architecture of their dissemination of knowledge, if even that. In this digital age, we also need to think about the design of that means of dissemination. Not only that, we are presented with more means of information architecture.

On top of that, we’re dealing with Metadata, traditionally the realm of museum collections managers, librarians, and archivists, more first-hand now. This is probably why, for me, this week’s readings on metadata were a greater challenge than those on design. Whenever we place primary sources on our sites–whether they be museum objects, archival documents, references to books–we are creating the metadata appropriate for our websites, or at least figuring out how to convey the standard metadata. Thus, knowledge about that realm is important as well.

I see all of this as both empowering and scary (update: I see I’m not the only one). Empowering because it gives historians full control–in some ways, more than a profession that has typically worked solo is used to.

It can also be scary. The responsibility for conveying the content in an attractive, logical way (barring a budget for outsourcing design) is now on the historian’s shoulders. The metadata is no longer the realm of the museum collections manager, archivist, or librarian. It is now our realm, at least for our own work.

Overall, I find this change positive. Knowing about design, information architecture, and metadata can only enhance our work, whether for the Web or not. So all in all, the turn toward the digital, and the attendant new skills historians must learn (and that I am grateful to learn), will facilitate our interactions with the professionals who are part of our work otherwise, whether librarians, archivists, museum collections managers, publishers, or designers of all stripes.


  1. Christopher Warren

    David, I agree. It is both exciting and scary. Being an experienced user of the web but a novice designer (is there something lower than that?) it concerns me that a viewer of my site will dismiss the historical information because of the amateur look/feel of any site I develop. Of course our class will help us with that but I wonder if practicing historians (at least those that aren’t doing new media as part of their job descriptions) will have time for anything more than an occasional blog or posting their syllabus on the web? It seems that all of this web design takes a ton of time/effort. I suppose the more new media you practice the faster it will all become. I feel like I am walking in concrete right now. I just hope I am a bit faster by the end of the semester!

  2. mebrett

    I think you get at one of the big scary factors of digital history, the amount and variety of work required to produce a successful project or site. Since I read this right after reading Big Tent Digital Humanities Part II (, I immediately noticed your point that historians have “typically worked solo.”

    Digital projects aren’t necessarily solo works. Blogs can be, but if you look at most of the projects that CHNM has going, all of them have at least two people. Even if you are working on a solo project, there’s a community of people doing something vaguely similar to help you figure it out. Maybe the challenge is as much learning to work cooperatively as it is learning design?

    • dpmckenzie

      That’s a good point about collaboration. Then again, so much of public history is collaboration. Interestingly, though, whenever I think of my own academic projects–whether digital or not–I immediately think solo. Hmmm…

      I’m thinking, too, about the difference between institutional projects like those undertaken by CHNM, and individual projects like the ones many of us discussed in class last night, or those undertaken by, for example, graduate students/dissertators. As Chris says, will not-as-good design affect my credibility? Will this lead to a marked difference between projects produced by, for example, DH centers versus individual scholars? Or is the availability of CMSes with good templates, a la Omeka, negating that concern?

  3. Sheri

    I would agree with the above comments and David’s point about the necessity of historians stepping out of their comfort zone to embrace new methods of information dissemination. Both address the concern of attaching importance to outward appearances. On one hand, will historians be judged first on the visual aesthetic of the web site rather than the quality of the content? In this case, I agree with Christopher in that an amateurish web site may discourage viewers before content is even considered. To overcome this, Megan’s collaborative concept does allow for web designers or the more technology advanced to step in and combine academic and artistic/technical talents, but again, this taps into the growing discussion of the value of collaboration over individual achievements and the issue of control. Yes, knowing how use metadata standards can only help broaden the viewing audience because the historian can key into “buzz words” (or has this term become a historical artifact?) to search out others also interested in the topic. While the process of learning how to tap into this new vocabulary seems overwhelming, I do like your positive spin, David, of the empowerment that comes with organizing information into ways that gains audiences through controlled vocabulary. Having an agreed upon meaning does facilitate discussion, even if it relies upon differentiated control words for different industries or genres.

  4. historiclove

    I think you make a very insightful point when you say “historians have relied upon others to design our means of knowledge dissemination” to this point, and digital media is perhaps so overwhelming because historians wishing to embark on these new projects must confront what it means to design themselves how their knowledge is disseminated. With a presupposed structure of dissemination comes a presupposed audience, and that is not so in the realm of the internet. I’m glad you’ve tried to rephrase the challenge a bit at the end of your post as one of creating and learning how to use the proper tools of digital construction. Once we at the very least feel more comfortable with these, then perhaps we will feel more equipped to tackle other challenges raised by digital history. Which I guess may be a fair distillation of this week’s readings all together.

Leave a Reply to Sheri Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: