Agnes J. Quirk, Laboratory of Plant Pathology, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington DC; By The Clinedist Studio, October 26, 1916; Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, Special Media Services Division, Still Pictures; Control Number:16-ES-247 Evaluating Public History Web Sites

The purpose of this section is two fold: one, to introduce and discuss the current conundrums facing public history on the Web; two, to create useable guidelines for students who rely on the Web's resources for their historical research and for public historians who want to create, critique, and review their own sites.

  • "Digital Junction," (pdf) by Debra DeRuyver and Jennifer Evans (American Quarterly, Sep. 2006). 

  • PHRC's Rating System, a unique system of criteria developed by PHRC specifically for the evaluation of Public History Web sites. All reviews published on this site employ this criteria.

  • "Evaluating Public History Web sites" (doc) by Debra DeRuyver, the original essay published on this site back in 1999.  Warning!  This essay is old and out-of-date and is included here simply as part of the history of how we've thought about this subject. 



Evaluating Public History Web sites
By Debra DeRuyver
Written and Mounted May 17, 1999
Revised August 27, 1999

Introduction

Evidence. Interpretation. Documentation. These are the cornerstones of solid historical work. While the historian's relationship to evidence has changed over the centuries-with new kinds of evidence being accepted and old being placed in different interpretive frameworks-- the task of the historian has essentially remained unchanged. Historians determine and interpret evidence. They glean the meaning of ephemeral activities from the artifacts of those activities that have traveled forward into the present. Finally, historians carefully document the evidence they find and use, creating a discursive space where contemporary and future generations, alike, can retrace, discuss, and debate our understandings of the past.

The World Wide Web presents historians with several problems and possibilities. 

First, the Web, itself, is a new kind of historical evidence that must be understood, assessed and, if shown to have value, preserved. Are home pages, for example, the scrap books future historians will use to understand the life of the bourgeois in late 20th century America? Should these home pages, which, to many minds seem trivial and unimportant, be saved for what they might reveal to later generations? 

Second, the Web presents traditional preservers of historical evidence-- e.g. curators and archivists-- unparalleled opportunities to make their collections known and available from the publication of indices and finding aids to the digitization and mounting of actual primary source documents.   But, who will be able to afford the expense of digitization?  Who will guarantee that the computers which store these digitized records will not be tampered with?  How will different audiences know where to find these primary sources and if what they find is authentic?

Third, the Web presents unprecedented publication opportunities for people who may not have had access to traditional venues of historical publication such as peer reviewed journals, newspapers, books, museum exhibitions, and film or television documentaries.  This may allow new and exciting historical interpretations to be voiced.  However, it also necessitates the development and careful exercise of critical thinking skills.  Web users must assess, at a minimum, the accuracy, scope, and bias of these sites.  Unlike research in a university library, for better and for worse, there are no gatekeepers of knowledge on the Web.  

Finally, the Web also presents unequaled commercial opportunities to directly market individuals. Many commercial history sites have arisen with this goal in mind. While these commercial entities may produce interesting, factually accurate sites, their  interpretive framework are sometimes of questionable value.  Trained public historians need to get on the Web and create sites that perform the dual task of maintaining rigorous standards of evidence and citation as well as engaging the public in a rich, diverse and dynamic understanding of the past as a contested terrain. If we do not, we run the risk that corporate entities will overwhelm public history on the Web, presenting, by default, history as a slick, market-oriented, wasteland of facile dates and facts.

The purpose of the following essay is two fold: one, to introduce and discuss the current conundrums facing public history on the Web; two, to create useable guidelines for students who rely on the Web's resources for their historical research and for public historians who want to create, critique, and review their own sites. Publication on the Web has collapsed many of the distinctions between writers, editors, curators, publishers, distributors, critics, and readers.  At the opening of the new millennium, we must once again take up many hats and become-- in our apprehension of information-- Renaissance men and women.

This essay is currently under revision. To read the complete original essay, download: "Evaluating Public History Web sites" (doc) by Debra DeRuyver, Warning!  This essay is old and out-of-date and is included here simply as part of the history of how we've thought about this subject.  The author highly recommends following the links at the top of this page to Digital Junction and to PHRC's rating system.

   

 
  

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