Public History Website Review

In this post, I will review both Princeton University’s Princeton & Slavery  and The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History. Both of these websites offer useful information on easily navigable pages that can be reached by all users, making them valuable public history resources.  However, both group of creators also appear to define their public audience very differently.

Princeton & Slavery

Although many years in the making, the Princeton & Slavery website has only been open to the public for the past year. It represents a really incredible effort to begin a conversation about the Princeton University’s long and extensive history with slavery. The idea itself is not novel, as roughly fifteen other universities have similarly created websites to showcase how these institutional histories are linked closely with slavery. However, the website has stretched the possibilities for how these sites can reach new audiences and include room for growth. Upon the site’s launch, Princeton & Slavery immediately made available 360 primary source documents and eighty narratives interpreting the documents and specifically their relation to national, institutional, and local contexts.

The “About Princeton & Slavery” page describes the project as a collaborative one: “The Princeton & Slavery Project is an ongoing investigation. We invite you to explore the many stories and documents included here and to contact us with research, stories, and ideas of your own.” It is presented as an effort begun by students and professors of the university that invites outside contributions. Collaborating with local partners the findings of the project have been used in musical theater performances, short plays, and video productions. Explicitly including community groups into the project plays two key functions in reaching the public. First, by encouraging others to display the research in videos, performances, and exhibitions, the history can reach new audiences outside of the traditional readers of university online materials. Additionally, by encouraging local engagement, the relevance of the part that Princeton (as a town) played in the development and continuation of slavery is further underscored for local residents.

One key feature missing from the site is some way for people to be able to share feedback or add their own interpretations of the sources. On one side, the fact that each set of documents couples with a writing by a historian in the field guarantees expertise on the subject, it also leaves out room for local knowledge and memory. Aside from this, Princeton & Slavery makes an important contribution to public history sites of Early America and the 19th Century US by making available many documents and contextual stories about often under-discussed slavery in the northern East Coast. Directly providing links to other similar university projects also connects readers of the site with further examples for continuing the “ongoing investigation”.

The Junto

Created by scholars of Early American History in 2012, The Junto has published almost 1,000 blog posts related to the field. Unlike scholarly journals that usually include longer articles, take months to publish, and offer little potential for direct discussion, various authors and guest writers collectively contribute roughly fifteen posts a month that focus on recent research, debates, or events. Created for the purpose of encouraging dialogue on relevant historical topics, the site offers a comment section below each blog post and a general forum.

An important question I have often wondered about this site is who exactly is its audience. According to it’s “about” page, The Junto aims to bring together “early Americanists and those interested in early American history”. Keeping to its word, all of the site’s content is accessible to academics and hobbyists alike. In my own life, I can think of many people, not trained as historians, who would be interested in the posts “Podcasts for Thanksgiving” and “#WhatComesNext? Book Ideas for the Hamilton Lover in Your Life”. One way of reaching a wider audience is through the two podcasts created by the blog. The Junto prominently displays links for both of these on its homepage, encouraging online browsers to look into downloading the podcasts.

The Junto might be most valuable for those who have not yet entered or have left higher education/academic universities. Because of the expensive price of many academic databases like JSTOR, one who cannot afford access can easily miss much of the discussion and work about Early America. In such a case, one could access the following blog posts to keep in the loop: “Doing Digital History 2016: A Recap”, “It’s Pronounced ‘Woo-ster’: The OIEAHC’s 22nd Annual Conference Recap”, “What’s Livetweeting For, Anyway?”, and “The Digital Antiquarian: Keeping It Old, Making It New”.

Despite this, the focus of the site does still remain on Early America as an academic discipline that belongs foremost to universities. Few of the hundreds of posts make any reference to historic sites and museums that also have a part in shaping public access to historical knowledge. With a larger focus on academic research and teaching, a resource page includes a general bibliography “of (mostly academic) books” and shares information about upcoming conferences and funding opportunities. Although the focus of the site clearly tends toward academic interests, its mission to make information about the field available to all who are interested in Early America invites potential students and history enthusiasts to keep up with, and even take part in, Early American historical dialogue.

Website Analysis

This list is coming out of a search through similar sites that all aim to provide resources on local New Jersey history. The majority of these sites have been created with very little monetary investment. This is true almost regardless of organizational and institutional affiliations, as some of the most difficult sites to use are ones that are supported by Rutgers University and the New Jersey Historical Commission.  Yet, despite this challenge there is a wide diversity among these sites in terms of how easy they are to navigate through, how clearly they communicate their purpose and usefulness, and how extensive are their information and materials. One major take-away from this assignment is that older websites that are never created anew are usually more confusing and less well-organized than those that are entirely reconstructed from time to time. I have picked out a few here that fit pretty plainly into the categories “the good”, “the bad”, and “the ugly” to understand why some are more friendly for web users than others.

The Good

Trenton Historical Society:  http://trentonhistory.org

The Trenton Historical Society has a surprisingly impressive website for an organization without a physical presence in the city at all. Because of this, the historical society has rightly recognized that it’s virtual presence is central to its work and success as a body and resource for local history. The site links easily to additional pages for historic sites in the area, even making it possible for visitors to buy tickets online. The detailed descriptions of historical neighborhoods and streets as well as transcribed materials including industrial and genealogical records available on the website represent another key strength of the Trenton History website. One major drawback of the site is its oversight of almost any history post 1920s, which is troubling for a city that has changed so drastically since that period. However, the site is partnered with several scholars who work on the history of late twentieth century, so presumably the digitization of those sources may be forthcoming. One particular feature of the website that makes it stand out from other similar sites is its visible inclusion of a tab to transport internet users to the old website for the Trenton Historical Society. The aesthetically pleasing and well-organized appearance of the site is largely a result of a recent effort to upgrade and expand the previous site, but by linking to the website in its older version, long-term users of the site have the option to continue to access it as they have previously done.

The Bad

New Jersey Digital Highway: https://njdigitalhighway.org

In contrast to the one described above, the New Jersey Digital Highway project offers a website that feels much less up to date. Although it appears to have changed minimally over the last few years, the documents and links are still functionally available to users of the site. Begun as a project in 1997 by faculty from New Jersey secondary schools in collaboration with The Alexander Library at Rutgers University, the site offers an incredible range of primary sources, relevant historical information, and teaching materials (including several critical analysis document sheets as guidance). Twenty-three lessons total  ranging from the “American Revolution” to “Social Protest of the 1960s and 1970s” each lead to a couple dozen other links. While these resources are extremely extensive the site can be very difficult to navigate as you often have to click through multiple pages to find a single document. Almost equally as useful, the New Jersey Digital Highway offers a clickable map of the state that lists hundreds of cultural organizations by county and category. Such a list is not easily available anywhere else on the internet, so its important contribution to local history outweighs the inconvenience and static content of the site.

The Ugly

Old Newark: http://oldnewark.com/mainindex.php

Old Newark began as a genealogical resource in 1998, when an experienced researcher of his family history began sharing transcriptions of documents and guides to locating these sources online. By the early 2000s it became more of a community space for people sharing their memories from the city. This can be seen in the way the site is divided into an “Old Newark” section (which offers mostly digitized images, transcribed materials, and interpretations of these sources) and a “Memories” section (which allows visitors of the page to add to the over 1,000 posts about the city, share photos, and add to a trivia board.) The home page links to a Facebook that has almost 5,000 followers and updates daily. While extremely valuable as a virtual center for discussing local history and genealogy, the site is extremely difficult to navigate. While the creator of the site writes that it has changed much since the late 1990s, its layout has not yet been organized clearly. Finding a particular source or historical sketch often involves a process of clicking through many pages. There is a basic search option that takes users off of the page entirely and doesn’t allow for searching by geographic or thematic categories. For a website reliant on crowdsourcing and unaffiliated by any major cultural organizations, the site is a really incredible resource, but one that is very time-consuming and frustrating to sift through.