Historical Website Design

This weeks reading of Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s chapter Designing for Web History in Digital History focuses on the principles and understandings of web design. As this class gets closer to the end of the year and we begin to think and learn how to develop our websites, this is a perfect guideline. A significant component in the readings was not the aesthetics which many of us already understand to a certain degree. But the section on accessibility, which discusses the implementation and meaning of US Federal Law Sections 508 and 504. As we’ve discussed in prior classes, the potential for individuals to maintain too much control, particularly the government, is a cause for concern. However, these sections are a step in the right direction for the sort of regulations that should be placed on the internet. The notion of accessibility on the internet is one missed by many of those who do not rely on such services, I admittedly did not think about it, however many individuals such as the blind, epilepsy or those with slow modems rely on multiple tools to aid their use of a site. Cohen and Rosenzweig ask whether it is up to the historian to make his/her sites accessible in this form, specifically when from an educational institution that receives funding from the federal government. As they point out, there is a flawed grey area in the law that allows an element of discretion to the historian as per what sort of accessibility the site will have. They make the argument that it is beneficial to “use the ‘alt’ attribute in…image tags” which not only benefits those with slow connections by allowing them to view a quick caption on what is loading, but also aid search engines in retrieving that site as a result. The use of text to describe videos and audios for the deaf or the use of audio technology for the blind requires extra work for the website, but more information makes it easier for search engines to find the site, thus the more likely web-surfers will end up at this website.

At the end of the day, a historical website plays a similar role as all other websites, as a tool to enhance communication, whether it be informational or social. For instance the ability for scholars to debate online, via such websites, allows for historical debate to be communicated in a manner still developing. The point of this chapter is to outline how to present these communications, focusing on Robin Williams and John Tollett’s design principles. These principles of contrast, proximity, alignment, and repetition are the four main components of their design principles, these basics provide a foundation for the direction towards a basic website framework. The historical website is used for more than just procrastination, but for study and discussion. Historical websites have the potential to be used for more than just a display of information, but an interactive medium with the general public to provide an understanding of particular subjects. No matter how good the resource the website may be, and historical sites do not attract like websites such as Reddit, they must make the site aesthetically appealing to maintain an audience. As an example, law professor Doug Lindner’s website Famous Trials┬áleads to a plethora of useful primary resources elsewhere inaccessible. Had I not read about this website in the readings, its aesthetic lack of appeal would have led me to question the credibility of the site. The primary resources found on this site are highly significant and provide an interesting experience with the topic. Overall, the historian must keep the website simple to convey the important text as the main focus, however the importance of website design should not be underestimated as these readings argue.


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