The Historian, the Internet, and the Web: A Reassessment

Andrew McMichael, February 1998

Mention the Internet to historians, and you will invariably hear them talk about their favorite web site. Some might grumble about slow transfer times, or web sites with too many graphics. Others will refer to recent debates on their favorite H-Net discussion lists, while a very few will mention a Usenet newsgroup they happened to pass through. Historians reflecting on the last years of the 20th century will look back on this time as the moment when the 'net became ensconced in our culture, Internet-related stocks made a killing on Wall Street, Hollywood made movies about evil 'net hackers masterminding world domination, and web addresses became a fixture in ads for everything from technology to toothpaste. But for the historical profession today, the medium offers a mixed message.

Why is this? It is a central tenet of modernistic faith that this communications revolution is a benefit to our society, that this democratization of information will lead to a better-informed citizenry. Yet all would concede that much, perhaps most, of the information available on the Internet is not very useful. While it is mildly interesting to watch the airplanes come and go at San Diego's airport, does anybody really care about an e-mail exchange between two Jell-O aficionados (; It is not so much the information that exists on the Internet, but the ability to exchange information through that medium that makes the Internet useful. The problem for historians is not a lack of useful places on the Internet. Rather there seems to be no clear consensus among us as to what makes the 'net useful. Beginning with newsgroups and e-mail, but focusing mainly on the World Wide Web, I will explore a few things that detract from the effectiveness and usefulness of the Internet and then turn to the qualities that make a good web site stand out, and briefly scrutinize a couple of top-notch sites. For the purposes of this essay, I will use the term "site" to refer to a collection of related web pages stored at the same location and "Internet" to refer to the meta-network that contains Usenet, ftp, e-mail, and other methods of information delivery.


While Usenet newsgroups are the least-known section of the Internet for historians, they typify the culture that makes many scholars wary of the Internet as a whole. Newsgroups are online chat areas that allow people to discuss various subjects in an exclusive but relatively anarchic atmosphere and can be accessed using any web browser. There are perhaps two dozen groups devoted to historical subjects, ranging from "miscellaneous history" to the Vietnam War. More public than mailing lists, newsgroups are open to anyone with a keyboard and a modem. Very few of these newsgroups are used by professional historians, and some, such as the American Civil War groups, attract a fair share of the fringe. From time to time, professional historians do take part in discussions there, although it is rare. Both Eric Foner and Mark Grimsley recently fielded questions on their work in one newsgroup, and the World War II newsgroup attracts a fair proportion of veterans who will relate firsthand accounts of their war experiences. In these ways newsgroups are quite interesting. However, little about them helps to further either the teaching or research of history, for several reasons. As already mentioned, very few of the participants are professionals; most are "buffs" who simply wish to debate events in history that interest them. Many professionals who participate do so blindly. One historian communicated with the Civil War newsgroup via e-mail to and from a moderator who posted his responses for him; he did not partake in the secondary or tertiary discussions. Other academic historians spend so much of their time battling participants' agendas that they get frustrated and leave. Newsgroups, because of their open nature, will never be anything more than a forum where those who repeat their arguments the most and the loudest tend to dominate the discussion.


A majority of historians are now using e-mail, and the rest have probably heard of its potential from colleagues. In fact, from the perspective of the historian, e-mail may be one of the greatest benefits of the Internet revolution. E-mail gives us the ability, for better or worse, to communicate almost instantly with other historians around the globe. We can include portions of articles and chapters for critical review, seek out authors whose work we admire, and coordinate panels for annual meetings. And in that most Tocquevillian of ways, the ability to create e-mail lists has led to the organization of lists devoted to specific subjects.

Although there are many independent mailing lists, H-Net (the Humanities and Social Sciences Network) is clearly the central organization for professional mailing lists. Currently, there are 90 H-Net lists, not including 12 affiliated lists. Ranging in subject from H-Africa to H-World, these lists perform a great service by allowing historians of like disciplines from all over the globe to exchange ideas. A forum like H-Teach is an excellent resource for the exchange of new techniques, book recommendations, and other class materials, and no teacher should ignore this resource. Apart from the ability to communicate quickly and easily with others in the profession via the written medium, mailing lists, because of their limited nature, cannot grow beyond that mission. In some cases mailing lists have bred a type of academic laziness by encouraging research "shortcuts" in the form of queries that can be answered by a few minutes work with a basic history text. Recently on one list a participant asked for the definition of a term that is in the index of every basic U.S. history text. Typing in the request for information and then waiting the day or so it took for a response to arrive certainly took more time than a stroll over to a colleague's bookshelf. However, it takes less effort to send e-mail to a list asking if anyone knows some good books on comparative slavery than it does to peruse the historiography. Mailing lists, if not monitored closely, threaten to become little more than a means to avoid using the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and other reference services.

The World Wide Web

A recent television commercial for IBM serves as a metaphor for many history web sites. Two middle-management types sit at a table. The first, reading from a newspaper, says, "It says here that the Internet is the future of business." The second man is silent, and so the first declares, "We should be on it." "Why?" counters the second man. There is a long silence. "It doesn't say," confesses the first man. This neatly illustrates an easily avoidable trap. Conceived as a means for scientists to exchange information in a hypermedia setting, the web gained quick popularity among some historians, but many never answered that "Why?" Tim Berners-Lee's original conception of the World Wide Web argued, "We should work toward a universal linked information system, in which generality and portability are more important than fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities. The result should be sufficiently attractive to use . . . so that the usefulness [of] the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use."1 A quick look around at a few of the history sites shows that to a large degree Berners-Lee's formulation of the web has been thrown by the wayside, and that the manager in the IBM commercial has run amok. The information on the web has indeed grown past a critical threshold, and yet history sites often appear to come online with little purpose other than to "be up," as the terminology goes, or because a department feels that it should, or perhaps to show that a particular school has joined the 21st century. In fact, as history sites come online, a pattern has emerged. A home page is created, usually with some fancy graphics (what a tutor of mine called "clown pants"). Beyond that, however, sites seem to lack focus (or, in the parlance of written work, a thesis)--a problem that can destroy the effectiveness of a web page.

When I first started to compile the "History Departments around the World" database at George Mason University, I was amazed to find a large number of history department and university web pages did not provide such basic information as the telephone number and address of their institutions. (The current version, in database format, is a vast improvement over my original creation. You can find it at In fact, the potential to find information that is otherwise unavailable, or that is costly or difficult to obtain but easy to produce in this medium, is the very reason to have a web page. A list of faculty members is quite common, but a number of pages do not provide any information on how to contact the faculty. Even something such as "Professor Smith does not wish to receive e-mail" would be more informative than silence. To some degree, as more departments come online and a measure of "web peer pressure" grows, many of these pages will evolve and grow, but the methods of presentation, lacking even an idea of what makes a good history site, are likely to remain haphazard at best.

One very popular project is to collect a number of "favorite links" for visitors to peruse. However, some of these pages can become quite tedious. I recently spent an afternoon looking for some new images from the American Civil War, only to pass through six consecutive sets of "links" pages before finding something serviceable. While it is sometimes interesting to see various links that some historians have assembled, many of the links are simply links to other people's pages of links--not altogether useful. In fact, there are already a number of indexes out there, most notably Yahoo! (, Excite (, and Lycos (, that perform this service on a much larger scale than any history department or individual could hope to challenge. Yahoo!, in particular, is organized by a professional bibliographer, is well maintained and is easy to use. More specific indexes exist that are geared toward history sites in particular, and are broken down into easily manageable categories. An excellent example is the utilitarian "Index of Resources for Historians" at the University of Kansas ( The "Horus" system at the University of California at Riverside is another emerging example of this kind of site ( In late October 1997, Horus contained some 1,700 links. Both sites contain links to a wide variety of web pages, and the taxonomy at the University of Kansas takes several full pages in and of itself. Since either can serve as a central resource for historians of all fields, most sites would do well simply to link to Horus or to the University of Kansas and add their site to those lists rather than compile their own incomplete lists.

This isn't to imply that all "links" pages are a waste of disk space. Rather, I would suggest that people who compile these and other history pages take a step back and ask themselves, "Why? Will the page of links perform a service not already available somewhere else?" Could the energy spent on gathering a page of links be better spent on another project? If the answer to that query is some version of "I'm not sure," it might be time to reevaluate the purpose of your web site. As with any published work, a web page should show that the creator has put some thought into the process, and not just "gone online" because it seemed like the thing to do. Designers need to keep in mind that their web site will act as a resource, and that web sites are ongoing, not static, projects, requiring focus and organization to work well. Many sites suffer from a simple lack of focus. Plan to convey the basic departmental information--e-mail and snail-mail addresses and phone numbers, courses offered and office hours, as well as course syllabi if available. Some sites supplement this basic information with a list of publications and research interests of faculty, which can draw potential graduate students to the institution. Once that is available, decide if you want your site to specialize in a subject that is unavailable or poorly treated on the web. Then assess the amount of time and effort that can be dedicated to the ongoing project. We have all been to web sites which promised great things but contained "Under Construction" signs for months on end. Ask yourself if the return will be worth the effort and if it will produce a piece of published work that will help the profession and proceed from there. As with any research project, designers should not attempt to reinvent the wheel when searching for supplemental projects to put on their sites.

Once focus--or, better still, a clear thesis coupled with a direction--is achieved, web sites generally need to have three characteristics to ensure usefulness: content, clarity (and its parent, organization), and communication. All seem deceptively easy to accomplish in the three- or four-dimensional World Wide Web. People enter a web site through what is called an "index" page that introduces the reader to the contents of the site. Three sites, the Victorian Women Writers Project at Indiana University (, Edward Ayers's Valley of the Shadow Project, (http://jefferson.villa, and The Labyrinth: Resources for Medieval Studies (, are all well-known projects of broad scope. All demonstrate the three qualities I mention, yet each does so in a distinct way. The differences between the three sites are quite instructive.

According to its creators, "the goal of the Victorian Women Writers Project (VWWP) is to produce highly accurate transcriptions of literary works by British women writers of the late 19th century." It contains rare "anthologies, novels, political pamphlets, and volumes of poetry and verse drama" that represent the work of about 30 or so authors, arranged alphabetically. This offers an ideal example of what an individual or a department with little or no funding might hope to achieve. Perry Willett at Indiana University gathered a number of public domain works centered on a common theme, scanned them in, and presented them in a clear, well-organized fashion.2 The table of contents is laid out in book-like format and easily accessible. From there, use of the site is simple. Visitors select the name of an author, followed by one of her works, and then read through a text that might otherwise be unavailable in a university library. A simple and effective site, the VWWP is content-driven and focused, engaging its users through the usefulness of the material rather than, as Berners-Lee said, "fancy graphics techniques and complex extra facilities."3

The Valley of the Shadow Project, more commonly called the Valley Archive, is laid out as a three dimensional "virtual building," much like a standard archive, and represents an excellent example of clarity. Ayers's project has received much praise over the years for its content, but even the organization of this site is refreshing and instructive. Upon entering the archive, visitors are greeted with a clickable map. Visitors can select a "chamber" of the archives, such as "Church Records," or "Letters and Diaries" by clicking the appropriate place on the map. The Church Records section, as with the others, allows a user to perform a search of several different churches. An examination of the Augusta County records keyed to the last name "Smith" turned up five different entries, along with birth dates, marriage dates, familial relations, sex, and other useful information. Examination of the archived diaries opened up a number of records groups that contained individual letters as well as entire family collections. The effect is seamless. What makes the Valley Archive useful is not only the staggering collection of information, but the ease of access and the visually pleasing manner (read: not overburdened with unnecessary graphics) in which it is laid out. Although there is a "How To" section to guide visitors, just about anyone who has visited a physical archive can use the Valley Archive with little or no trouble. Additionally, students and scholars, as well as those seeking ideas on how to design an effective web site, will all find the Valley Archive useful and interesting.

Few sites demonstrate greater effort and success at communication than the well-known Labyrinth at Georgetown University. It is also perhaps the fullest embodiment of Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the function of the World Wide Web in that it combines on-site resources with direct links to other archives, databases, electronic libraries, professional directories, and online texts that contain works of a common theme with the Labyrinth. The amount of shared information on medieval studies is astonishing; it is truly a World Wide Web. At the same time, the site is easy to use, easily searchable, and the information is extremely useful. The Labyrinth contains syllabi and learning materials as well as primary sources, and so is useful to a wide range of scholars and students. Unlike the Valley Archive, in which the introduction is arranged graphically, the Labyrinth opens on a text- based, hierarchical menu that is equally easy to use. A click on the link entitled "Old English" under the heading "Auctores et fontes" reveals a wealth of medieval poetry and prose. Similar sections exist for Latin, French, and Iberian, making the Labyrinth one of the most versatile and excellent sites on the web.

The usefulness of the World Wide Web, however, is not simply limited to what we publish and display. How this information is conveyed to students is important as well. One of my first forays into "web pedagogy" came during the second half of an introductory U.S. history survey course. The assignment required my students to search out and bring in for discussion a primary account of someone's experience during World War II. They delved into online archives, diaries, newsgroup posts, and personal web pages to find accounts of internment, combat, and rear-unit hospital service. It was an easy, fun assignment, and one that is easily adaptable to many other areas of history. Thanks to resources like the ones mentioned above, students can search out and find a wide variety of primary and secondary texts, thus helping them to learn how to conduct research in virtual archives.

The World Wide Web is an ever-expanding fact of the historians' existence, and one with which we need to come to grips. Departmental web pages convey our attitudes toward the outside world as much as a well-crafted book review, a curriculum vitae, or a virtual archive. Not every web site can be the Valley Archive or the Labyrinth, but every history web site should have a reason for its existence, a thesis if you will, and should attempt to stick to that thesis. Web pages in the history profession can become much more useful if historians cum webmasters approach their web pages as they would approach any other thorough attempt to convey information.

—Andrew McMichael is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. He designed and helps maintain the web site of the AHA. His e-mail address is


1. Tim Berners-Lee in his original presentation to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, which outlined his proposal for creating what would become the World Wide Web. The original proposal is at 89/proposal.html. For an introduction to the World Wide Web, see McMichael, O'Malley, and Rosenzweig, "Historians and the Web: A Beginners Guide" in Perspectives, January, 1996.

2. This is, of course, a vast oversimplification of the amount of work which went into the construction of this site. Yet the point remains.

3. 9/proposal.html.