From the Noteworthy column in the February 1999 Perspectives

"Fax Me Everything You Have on the Civil War!" A Look at Web Audiences in the Valley of the Shadow Project

William G. Thomas, February 1999

In the popular movie Field of Dreams, the main character hears voices telling him "build it and they will come." At first, he is puzzled and wonders, build what? Finding the answer to this question is the point of the movie, and finally the hero realizes that he is to build a baseball diamond for the ghosts of baseball's past. Strangely, the movie does not turn on who will come when it is built.

The mantra "build it and they will come" seems to be the clarion call of the World Wide Web. Businesses are throwing huge resources at this field of dreams, pushing "e-commerce" and advertising every product on the web. Some universities are striving to have a web site for every course, and libraries are rushing to digitize their collections. The Internet is growing daily and millions of users come online every year. As the rush to build on the World Wide Web pushes universities in new directions, we might pause to consider who comes to these web sites and what audiences we are reaching.

While some observers glorify the Web as an open, democratic, and inviting place where old inequities disappear, others disparage it as nothing more than an atomized junk-heap where "no authority is 'privileged' over any other." Still others fear that the Web will reinforce already deep divisions between rich and poor, cutting off many students from information their wealthier peers have access to. A closer look at who uses history web sites might provide some basis on which to judge the Web's reach, its relative openness and availability, and its use by teachers and students. One e-mail message to the Valley of the Shadow Project came from an ambitious fourth-grade student: "Fax me everything you have on the Civil War!" Do only the fax-equipped have access to the Web or is the technology more open?1

The Valley of the Shadow Project at the University of Virginia has been on the World Wide Web since 1993. The project began in 1991—under the direction of Edward L. Ayers as a research project at the University of Virginia—even before the Web came into being and has grown into one of the largest history web sites. The Valley of the Shadow provides in interactive form sources for all of the people in a northern county and a southern county throughout the coming, fighting, and aftermath of the Civil War: newspapers, census data, church records, military records, maps, and images. Its intended audience includes students and teachers at high schools, community colleges, and research universities, as well as researchers, genealogists, librarians, and anyone interested in the history of the Civil War. The project can be found on the World Wide Web at http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu.2

The success of the Valley of the Shadow Project led the University of Virginia to create a new center in 1998 dedicated to creating history on the World Wide Web. The Virginia Center for Digital History (VCDH) at the university (http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu) not only produces digital history but also disseminates it, teaches with it, and trains others to create new projects with its methods. VCDH is an incubator of strategies, techniques, and experiences for this new medium. Recent new projects at VCDH include Virtual Jamestown, an African American history project, and a project on modern Virginia history. A key aspect of the center is its alliance with the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia to disseminate its work to schools throughout the nation. As the center works with secondary schools, it has become increasingly aware of the need to understand this particular audience and how to reach it.

The experience of the Valley of the Shadow Project reveals important patterns and lessons about Web audiences. Over the last two years the project has received over two million "hits" or accesses and has averaged over 3,000 accesses per day (one access equals one requested page from the project site). In the fall of 1998 the project began to average over 10,000 accesses each day and recently it has picked up even more traffic, averaging 12,000 accesses a day. Spikes of heavier usage of the project site coincided with profiles in major print publications. In March 1998, for example, a cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Education pushed accesses to over 9,000 per day and a November 29, 1998, article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times produced a record number of accesses in a day for the project—13,861—and almost 172 million bytes of data served to users.3

Accesses only tell us raw usage and almost nothing about who is visiting the project and where they are coming from. For that information we need to look more closely at the statistics the project's server compiles from all of the accesses each day. The server counts the number of accesses and breaks them into categories organized by their domain name—that is, whether the request came from a .com, .edu, .org, or other Internet address. On a day of heavy use in November, for example, the project received requests from almost every category of the Internet—from businesses (.com), colleges and universities (.edu), military organizations (.mil), nonprofit organizations (.org), government divisions (.gov), and from nearly all parts of the world, including South America, Asia, Africa, North America, Australia, and Europe. The project received requests from every domain on the Internet except Antarctica.

The project's reach into high schools is difficult to track but not impossible. We wanted to find out how extensively schools and educational institutions used the project. The large number of .com and .net addresses making requests might appear to indicate that the audience is not primarily students. Often, though, the most prevalent .com address making requests is aol.com, and we cannot tell whether the visitor is a student working on a research project at home or a Civil War buff surfing the Web for new information. When we break down the largest volume of requests, we find that many visits to the project come from schools and universities. We looked at a week in the life of the project, tracking all requests and grouping them by URL. Over the course of a week in September 1998 the project received large numbers of accesses from a California high school, a Wyoming high school, Harvard University, Stanford University, Arizona State University, a New Mexico community college, Appalachian State University, and high schools in Minnesota and Indiana.

The project appears to be a flexible teaching tool, finding a strong audience at such diverse institutions as Harvard University, a New Mexico community college, and a high school in Indiana. Few other educational materials, whether textbooks, teaching guides, or videos, are so widely used among different institutions and educational levels. The breadth of the audience suggests that the Web presents an open and democratic medium for history, and that projects can reach students in very different schools, regions, and circumstances.

Obviously, the Civil War has wide appeal and brings a large amount of traffic. The project receives e-mail comments from the site every day, usually from general viewers, not students or teachers. These comments also reveal the diversity of the project's audience, as they come from all ages, races, classes, and genders. One recent e-mail comment also demonstrated why the openness of the Web is so vital to its success: "As a black child growing up in Waynesboro, Va. 1948 to 1960, I've learned so very little about home, that your hard work has struck my heart and my heritage!! Thank you, Thank you, From my heart—Leon, Long Island, New York 8/98."4

Because some of the biggest volume users of the site are schools and universities, the project has worked to meet the expectations of this particular audience. The project built lesson plans for high school teachers and tied them to the Virginia Standards of Learning and the National History Standards. Its staff visited dozens of schools, showing the project to teachers and students and discussing technology and how to incorporate it into the classroom.

The project was showcased at major history conferences, such as the American Historical Association and the Southern Historical Association meetings, and at social studies educators' conferences, widening the base of educators who have seen a demonstration of the project. The project's staff also keeps track of schools that use the project in their curriculum, providing e-mail advice and technical support when necessary.

The years of work with the project have taught us many lessons that the Virginia Center for Digital History plans to learn from. Digital history has been full of surprises, even apparent paradoxes. A medium that might seem to distance people from one another instead demands kinds of cooperation and collaboration that traditional scholarship discourages. Though digital history demands labor on the scale of large editing projects, it has turned out to be quite cost effective when the size and enthusiasm of the audience is taken into account. We have also learned that in disseminating digital history projects such as the Valley Project we must take active measures to ensure that outreach programs—teaching materials, workshops, on-site visits, and teacher fellowships—provide absolutely essential services. We can no more expect computer-based scholarship to teach by itself than we expect books to teach by themselves. Although many schools of education are now teaching courses on social studies technology, there are still hundreds of thousands of teachers who are having computers thrust upon them with no preparation. Not surprisingly, many of those teachers ignore or even resist the intrusive machinery and wonder about the wisdom of spending valuable resources on that machinery.

The Valley Project is currently working with the Curry School of Education to document further how schools are using the project. Educators are testing the project in schools across the nation, working with lesson plans and learning modules created at our center, and monitoring the effectiveness of the project on student learning. As historians, our work at the center is devoted to building the project, but we need the help of professional educators to test and evaluate the material. We hope to learn from the Curry School's work how to reach the high school audience more effectively.

The Valley Project was built to work in research institutions, colleges, universities, libraries, high schools, and for a general audience. We found that collaboration and outreach have helped us reach each of these audiences. Trips to schools, presentations at professional conferences, continuing education seminars, and local history programs were all essential to building an audience for the project. If the Web is going to be an open space where all have access to the same sophisticated information, where there are few barriers to exploration and knowledge, and where previously distant audiences come together, it needs to be cultivated in a manner intended to produce these results.

—William Thomas is the director of the Virginia Center for Digital History.

Notes

1. For an excellent overview of history on the Web, see Michael O' Malley and Roy Rosenzweig, "Brave New World or Blind Alley? American History on the World Wide Web," Journal of American History (June 1997): 132–155. Gertrude Himmelfarb, "A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet," Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 1, 1996, p. A56, quoted in O' Malley and Rosenzweig, "Brave New World or Blind Alley," p. 133.

2. For an analysis of the Valley Project in Perspectives, see Andrew McMichael, "The Historian, the Internet, and the Web: A Reassessment," Perspectives (February 1998): 29–32.

3. "Rethinking the Civil War: Taking Aim at the 'Ken Burns' View of the Civil War," Chronicle of Higher Education, March 20, 1998. "Digitized Artifacts Making Knowledge Available to All, Online," New York Times, November 29, 1998. See also Wired, May 1998.

4. E-mail to Valley of the Shadow Project, August 28, 1998.

* All graphs and charts in this article are derived from statistics on Web usage for the Valley of the Shadow Project at The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia. For more information about these statistics, contact the author by e-mail at wgt9m@virginia.edu.