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Author: John K. Lee
Title: Principles for Interpretative Digital History Web Design
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2002

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Source: Principles for Interpretative Digital History Web Design
John K. Lee

vol. 5, no. 3, September 2002
Article Type: Computing in the K-12 Levels

Principles for interpretative digital history web design

John K. Lee, PhD

Social Studies Education

College of Education

Georgia State University

Author Bio

John K. Lee, PhD

For nine years John taught middle and high school social studies. He is currently an assistant professor of the social studies education at Georgia State University. John's publications have appeared in Social Education, International Journal of Social Education, and Social Studies and the Young Learner among others. He is currently co-editor of the social studies section of the AACE online journal Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education. His research focuses on the pedagogical and theoretical implications of digital history.

Scire ubi aliquid invenire possis, ea demum maxima pars eruditionis est
(To know where you can find anything, that in short is the largest part of learning).

Never before has this maxim been more true than today. The amount of information available online has in recent years exploded. Conservative estimates put the number of individual documents on the Web at over 550 billion.  [1] It is impossible to know how much of this information is historical data, but without doubt the total is significant. The Library of Congress' American Memory website alone has over 7 million historical documents. With this much information available the question is not can we find it, but is what we are finding any good. Educators have a lot riding on the answer to this question. The poorer the quality of information available on the Web the more difficult teachers' jobs become. Given the pervasiveness of historical data on the Web, design becomes a central issue for developers of web-based history content or what is often called digital history.

Digital history is the study of the past using a variety of electronically reproduced primary source texts, images, and artifacts as well as the constructed historical narratives, accounts, or presentations that result from digital historical inquiry. Digital historical resources are typically stored as electronic collections in formats that facilitate their use on the World Wide Web. Digital historical sites can be interpretative or archival. The differences between archival and interpretative sites are significant enough to necessitate separate considerations for designing such sites. In this article I will focus on the design of interpretative sites.

Interpretative digital history web sites contain some description, explanation, analysis, and/or evaluation of historical primary sources as well as original digital historical narrative or analytical works. These sites might also include the actual primary source documents used to conduct historical inquiry. In fact, some of the best interpretative digital history sites include significant numbers of primary sources materials. But, interpretative sites do not necessarily include all the documents that would be in an archival collection.

Interpretative historical websites are different from traditional interpretative historical works produced as text, audio and/or video or film. The Web allows for a more interactive, flexible, and non-linear approach to historical interpretation. Web developers can incorporate multiple sources of text, still images, video, and audio. They are not constrained by the physical bounds of print and video linearity. Most importantly, because of the low barriers to publication, the Web enables virtually anyone with an interest in a historical topic to create history. Carl Becker's notion of "Everyman His Own Historian" can come to life on the Web. Historians who practice digital history such as Edward Ayers see the Web as democratizing the practice of history.  [2] Of course, there is a dangerous downside to digital history's omnipresence. In the wrong hands (with malice intent or just simple incompetence) the Web might do more harm than good.

Web producers within specific content areas must begin to address issues relating to the content they are making available online. To date not much attention has been given to the pedagogical quality of the web-based interfaces. Designers have to take into consideration the learners who will use their sites, the objectives for presenting the materials, and the type of interaction they wish to facilitate on the web site. As students rely more and more on the Web developers of history related web sites must begin to create sites that infuse pedagogy into the design.  [3]

On the pages of this journal Mark Newman issued a call for a new approach to history website design (see Newman's "A Call For a New Generation of Historical Web Sites"). Newman suggested that web developers should abandon what he called the overstuffed approach and spend more time organizing content. Newman wrote his review in hopes that it might prompt web designers to address questions related to design.

Given the complexities associated with digital history, I would like to expand on Newman's recommendations by offering the following principles for developing and evaluating interpretative digital history web sites. Exemplars accompany each principle along with a description of the qualities that make these exemplary sites model for digital history design.

Principles for developing interpretative digital history websites

Principle 1 - Metaphors, symbols, images, visual aids, and textual scaffolds should frame the interpretations on digital history websites

Exemplar: The Dramas of Haymarket

The Dramas of Haymarket uses the metaphor of drama to present the interpretative story of the 1886 Chicago Haymarket bombing and riots. A prologue, five acts, and an epilogue comprise the organizational structure of the site. Each of these 7 sections incorporates representative terms or phrases used to categorize digitized primary sources. These primary sources support narrative vignettes that are themselves shaped by the organizational structure of the site. The content of the site draws on the Haymarket Affair Digital Collection (  [4] The overall design of Dramas of the Haymarket provides users with a structure or scaffold for constructing knowledge about the events described.

Principle 2 - Digital history websites should invite active engagement and constructive interpretation

Exemplar: Valley of the Shadow

The Valley of the Shadow is an on-line collection of materials relating to two communities, Franklin County, Pennsylvania and Augusta County, Virginia, before, during, and after the American Civil War. The documents on the site include letters and diaries, newspapers, images, maps, census records, and military records. Although the Valley of the Shadow is not an interpreted resource in the manner of a secondary text, the archive intends to raise questions related to conventional research on the Civil War. Historian James McPherson criticizes the Valley of the Shadow as a well intentioned but problematic explanation of the Civil War. He worries that the archival information on the site might lead to "a certain kind of coerciveness."  [5] McPherson's concerns are precisely what the Valley of the Shadow intends. The creators of the site Edward Ayers, Anne Rubin, and William Thomas are attempting to challenge accepted views of the Civil War. Thomas calls this an effort to present the "contradiction and complexity" of the Civil War so that students can see August and Chambersburg as communities that were not "simple places of legend" that confirm the accepted stories of the past.  [6] Instead the creators of the Valley of the Shadow wish to challenge the idea that the North and South were on a collision course destined to war. The design of the Valley of Shadow not only enables users understanding of this interpretation it invites users to challenge, test, and compete with the interpretation. All of the documents that were used to construct the authors' formal interpretation are available for anyone who wishes to dabble in their own historical inquiry.  [7]

Principle 3 - The resources on digital history websites should be nonlinear, malleable, well focused, and pertinent to the interpretation

Exemplar: Do History

Do History is an electronic adaptation of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's book A Midwife's Tale. The book is based on Ulrich's interpretation of the Diary of Martha Ballard, an 18th century midwife living in Massachusetts. The site incorporates a variety of tools that allow users to construct historical interpretations. Do History is a case study in interpretative digital history. Using this site a student of history can explore various interpretations of specific stories. For example, students can examine Martha Ballard's account of a rape told to her by Rebecca Foster who was allegedly rape by a local judge. One of the most important features of the site concerns the ability of users to manipulate resources. The diary entry regarding the rape can be viewed in multiple formats including transcribed text and images of the diary in multiple sizes. Users also have easy access to related diary entries, excerpts from Ulrich's book, and tools that aid in the "decoding" of Ballard's diary. The most interesting tools relate to the presentation of the Ballard's diary. In addition to the multi-formatted digital presentation of the diary, the authors of this site provide users with an array of tools to aid in interpretation. The site includes intuitive browse and search functions, excerpted stories presented with text from the diary, and three tools designed to aid students as they read and transcribe the diary.


1. "The Deep Web: Surfacing Hidden Value," BrightPlanet LLC, available at

2. Edward L Ayers, "The past, present and future of digital history," (1999), available at

3. One in every three students who completed the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress in history reported that they used computers to "study history" once a month or more.

4. These two sites make for a nice contrast between the interpretative and archival digital history.

5. Shea, Christopher, "Taking Aim at the 'Ken Burns' View of the Civil War," Chronicle of Higher Education, 20 March, 1998, available at

6. Thomas, William G., "In the Valley of the Shadow: Communities and History in the American Civil War," (1999), available at

7. The Valley of the Shadow is available in CD and book form. The book in particular includes more narrative on the interpretation of the questions raised on the website.