Can You Do Serious History on the Web?

Carl Smith, February 1998

Many who write and teach history have been intrigued and even excited by the proliferation of historical web sites that keep materializing out of the ether. They increasingly use the Internet as a research tool, and, like their colleagues in other fields, historians have constructed, sometimes in collaboration with web designers, online reference guides and collections of materials on numerous subjects. History instructors are also preparing electronic syllabi that provide links to some digitized resources that would be difficult to assign by other means. In some courses students submit web-based projects of their own or work with others on the creation of a site on a particular topic. Such sites can continue to grow with succeeding offerings of the same class, and they can serve a much larger and more widespread audience than the students currently enrolled.

At the same time, however, even those convinced of the web's potential value have raised questions about its limits for research and teaching. Is the format of a web site inherently shallow, best suited to displays of sight and sound that seduce the senses without engaging the mind? Has the unregulated culture of the Internet made cyberspace a bloated refuge for work of questionable value that otherwise couldn't--and shouldn't--see the light of day? And, quite apart from questions of content quality, one can ask whether the limited amount of material that can be put on a single screen, the difficulty many browsers encounter in reading an extended electronic text, and the web's much-discussed nonlinear nature work against the presentation of ideas, as opposed to just information? Is it possible, in short, to do "serious" history on the web?

I had plenty of opportunity to ponder these questions recently when I curated an online museum exhibition, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory (, which "opened" on October 8, 1996, the 125th anniversary of the disaster. The exhibit is a joint undertaking of the Chicago Historical Society (CHS), whose staff did the scanning and prepared a database of images, and of Northwestern University, whose academic technologies experts produced the site. The exhibition was funded in part by a grant from H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences OnLine, an NEH-supported international network of scholars and teachers working together to explore ways of using the Internet for research and instruction.

This collaboration was inspired not only by the anniversary of the fire, but also by CHS president and director Douglas Greenberg's desire to experiment with how the web might be used to present his institution's unmatched Chicago history collections, and by Northwestern's academic technologies director Bob Taylor's interest in this kind of cooperative project. For many years the CHS, one of the leading urban history museums and libraries in the country, has invited academics to work with its regular staff as guest curators. Dr. Greenberg and Mr. Taylor asked me to curate the site since I had experience with employing electronic resources in the classroom and because I had recently written a book devoted in substantial part to the fire, and was thus very familiar with both the event itself and the society's holdings.

The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory is a large site, about 350 web pages in all. It is divided into two parts, each of which consists of several "chapters." The first half traces the history of the great conflagration, with chapters on prefire Chicago, the disaster itself, the condition of the city immediately after, the massive relief effort, and the triumphant rebuilding. The second half considers the various ways in which the fire has been remembered: written accounts and drawings by eyewitnesses; contemporary reporting in the print and visual media, including photographs, stereographs, and lithographs, as well as newspapers, magazines, and "instant" histories; imaginative retellings in fiction, poetry, drama, film, and song; the permutations of the popular legend that Mrs. O'Leary and her cow accidentally started the blaze; souvenirs claimed from the ashes or created after the fact; and the array of civic celebrations and historical commemorations of the past 125 years, among them previous exhibitions by the Chicago Historical Society.

Each chapter contains a "gallery" of images, a "library" of texts, and an interpretive essay. The site includes approximately 300 images (photographs, broadsides, lithographs, paintings, books, periodicals, newspapers, and manuscripts, plus dozens of artifacts), as well as about 80 transcribed documents, from eyewitness accounts and official proclamations to Mrs. O'Leary's testimony before a board of inquiry. In addition to planning the exhibition, selecting its contents (with considerable assistance from CHS curators and librarians), organizing them into chapters, and writing the interpretive essays, I prepared a comprehensive introduction to the site and about 275 captions and commentaries, as well as a short bibliography.

Thanks to the remarkable talent and energy of my technical collaborators at the historical society and Northwestern, the site also contains a few special features: a 360-degree panorama of antebellum Chicago stitched together from 11 separate photographs taken from the top of city hall in 1858; postfire stereographs of devastated Chicago viewable in 3-D; synthesized melodies of two fire songs (one of which plays con fuoco--with fire--as its composer directed); a 1955 newsreel of the planned burning of the block where the O'Leary house once stood to clear the way for new construction (ironically, the Chicago Fire Academy); and an electronic guest book to which "visitors" can send their responses. All can be accessed directly or through free software one can download from the Internet (instructions are included).

A historical site like this is not without precedent. Many libraries and museums, sometimes with the active involvement of professional scholars, have mounted web exhibitions on various topics. There are few online historical exhibitions on this scale, however, with as much conceptual framework and analytical material, and viewable only through the Internet (visitors to the CHS building in Lincoln Park "tour" the exhibit at one of six monitors in two specially constructed kiosks).

But is it serious history? Others may offer different definitions, but at the risk of oversimplification, I would take serious history to mean original work that is responsibly based on primary sources, is intelligently informed by relevant scholarship, and makes a clear argument or group of arguments. One might maintain that this definition, especially its last part, demands the tighter structure and literary quality of articles and books, thereby ruling out any museum exhibition, real or virtual. The main thing that attracted me to this project, however, was that--for this subject and content at least--I believed that the Internet's advantages outweighed its liabilities.

These advantages were many. Working with virtual resources meant that we could handle and generate electronic content outside the usual constraints of mounting shows or publishing books. We didn't have to worry about the scale and configuration of a defined area in a museum, about the logistics and expense of hanging objects, or about how many full-color illustrations or pages of text a publisher would allow. What further eased cost considerations, of course, was that the historical society owned the materials to be exhibited. While the loss of immediacy in viewing digitized rather than actual objects was inescapable, this mattered less than it might have if the items displayed were more important for their tactile and aesthetic, rather than their historical, value. And, of course, we had the web's multimedia capabilities and interactive dynamism.

But how were we to put these advantages to good use? This question pertained to issues of both content and form. Perhaps the most important content decision was to include a wealth of texts. We could not have made these documents fully available for reading in a museum show, and it would have been impractical to publish them in a conventional book. Many of them were unique and heretofore unpublished, so that they were otherwise inaccessible to anyone except the very few people--mainly professional scholars and dedicated history buffs--who were willing and able to come to the CHS and seek them out. The web also gave me--much more than a regular exhibition, or even most exhibition catalogs or books, would have--the chance to situate this group of texts and all the visual material among the set of ideas that I tried to develop in the essays.

These essays and the introduction enabled me to explain things such as why the Chicago fire attracted so much attention and just how it is significant in the city's and the nation's history. Throughout, I tried to draw on other work in the field. For example, in speaking of the ways class and other cultural issues were involved in the postfire relief and rebuilding, not to mention the O'Leary legend, I brought in arguments made by Karen Sawislak in Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871--1874, and by Ross Miller in American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. In the introduction and the half of the show devoted to remembrances of the cataclysm, I reflected on the meaning of the fire in terms of the large body of work on cultural memory that had very much intrigued me when I was writing my own book but which I did not fully explore at that time. (The exhibition, it should be pointed out, is not a web version of the book, but a separate and independent entity.) The major idea that the second half of the exhibit considers is how, from before the ashes cooled to the present day, the memory of the fire evolved in ways that reflected and served the ever-changing present.

There is, of course, no guarantee that a particular browser will ever view and read all of the site, and this will almost certainly not happen in a single session. The exhibit is designed with this in mind, so that individual chapters and their different parts can stand alone. But, like a book and unlike a museum, a web site is something that a substantial number of people can come back to as often as and at any time they wish, so that they do not have to be concerned with viewing everything in a single visit. And if they want a hard copy of a section, they have the option of printing it out.

The site's pages were designed by art director Paul Hertz and production supervisor Joe Germuska, who worked with the scans provided by CHS photographers John Alderson and Jay Crawford. The key design issues related to how best to present all this content and interpretive material. The pages had to be clear, consistent, and appealing, and, without restricting the usual nonlinear freedom of the web, had to be intuitively navigable in a way that did not disrupt the intellectual coherence of the site. The inclusion of so much text posed a different kind of challenge. This demanded a layout that was not only visually engaging but also more legible than the eye-wearying blocks of type on most text-heavy sites. Hertz accomplished this gracefully by choosing a slightly larger font than is commonly employed and by leaving wide left-hand margins. We used this margin for salient quotations from the texts and, where appropriate, thumbnail versions of images in the galleries linked to the full-size version. While all the documents were transcribed from primary sources, in many instances we provided scans of the originals to give the viewer a visual sense of the real thing.

The special media features on the site are unabashedly intended to captivate the viewer, but they are subordinated to the larger purposes of the exhibition. The panorama from the top of city hall (accompanied by a description of what the viewer is seeing and of what is in the same locations today) attempts to show the appearance of and spatial relations within the prefire city. I doubt if there is any other medium that could do this as well, and for as many people at once, as the web. In any case, I believe that the special media combine with the other contents to produce an exhibit with more texture and richness than many books and more depth than most museum exhibitions.

So, is this serious history? I think it does fit the criteria I offered earlier: it is original work that is based on the best primary evidence, is aware of other research, and makes a group of sustained points about its subject. Perhaps of greater importance, the site encourages viewers to do history themselves, since it offers such a vast selection of sources that they can explore--with or without reading the interpretive text--and draw their own conclusions. It is not serious history if the only acceptable models are the article and the book. But it is only fair to go back to the full question and consider whether it is possible to do serious history on the web. An article or book is simply better for some, perhaps even most, kinds of history, but the Internet opens up some very powerful prospects for presenting information and ideas in a unique and valuable way, complementing rather than replacing other forms.

There is some evidence that the site is being taken by others to be serious history. The many comments in the guest book reveal that its visitors include a range of scholars, from middleschoolers writing their first historical essays to students in graduate seminars for whom it is assigned reading--in some cases as part of an exploration of how historians might use the web. One thing that is indisputable is that this combination of disaster and digitizing has attracted attention. In the exhibit's first year, viewers from about 70 countries downloaded about 850,000 of its pages. Encouraged by the response to this project, and with grant support from AT&T, the CHS has begun a multifaceted online project called History Central, as well as other digitizing initiatives.

But the only way for serious historians to decide whether one can do serious history on the web is to look at various sites and judge for themselves. While visiting The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, they might keep a few things in mind. To repeat, they should recognize that this is not a substitute for other ways of doing history, and that the fire site did not displace an alternative museum or book project. They might also consider whether there is any better means to reach such a large potential audience outside as well as within the academy. At the same time, however, they should also realize that an exhibition like this is not a simple project; it requires a combination of available materials, the proper hardware and software, scholarly and technical expertise, and, in most cases, institutional backing. Institutional support involves not only the usual requisites of time and money, but also a recognition by administrators and colleagues, as well as by the profession itself, that this kind of work is worth doing.

I would ask historians to think about what the web can and cannot do in regard to their own goals as scholars and teachers. This effort is all the more important given that we live in what many of us see as a time when the humanities in general and the study of the history in particular are under siege, and when we talk about the increasing importance of doing public history as the information revolution proceeds all around us. The only way to see to it that there is serious history on the web is to put it there ourselves.

—Carl Smith is professor of English and American studies and Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University. He is the author of Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman (University of Chicago Press, 1995).