Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Rich Hephner
TheodoreRoosevelt.org is like an old house with too many rooms and not enough hallways. Browsing through it, you might open closets and find yourself on the back porch a few times, but eventually, you will find some treasures. At first glance, Theodoreroosevelt.org consists mainly of biographical content, proceedings of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, links to other TR resources, and a smattering of articles concerning the Roosevelt legacy. If you look harder, you might find the transcript of Roosevelt’s famous 1912 “Bull Moose” speech that he delivered with a bullet still in his side from an assasination attempt moments earlier. You can image the crowd’s anxiety in the words he spoke. Searching further, you could come across transcripts of articles written by TR’s son, Ted, later in life. Scrolling through these pages gives the reader a sense of what it was like to live in the shadow of an early twentieth century American giant. The problem with these resources is that they are so few and hard to find.
As both the web presence of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and the first site returned when conducting a “Google” or “Yahoo!” search for “Theodore Roosevelt”, Theodoreroosevelt.org has two main audiences. The first is Association members and possible members. The site acts as an online brochure, calendar, newsletter, fundraiser, and recruiting tool for the Association. Interested parties can find information about the association, view upcoming events, and even buy Theodore Roosevelt literature through the site. The second audience for the site includes those who are interested in finding out about the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. As part of the Association’s mission to “preserve the memory and ideals of the 26th President of the United States”, it provides information about President Roosevelt to presumably thousands of visitors.
Theodoreroosevelt.org is a conglomeration of Roosevelt resources. Because it serves two audiences, the site has two distinct types of content--historical and Association related. There are three sections of historical content: a kids section, a biography section, and an additional resources section. The biographical articles listed under “Life of Theodore Roosevelt” are the largest piece of historical content. They address Roosevelt’s days as a rancher, his public service career prior to his presidency, his accomplishments while in office, and his political activity during his post White House years. The kids section has a few articles of interest mainly to children, such as how the Teddy bear got its name. Content dealing primarily with the Theodore Roosevelt Association makes up another three sections of the site with Association news, proceedings, and events, an online Roosevelt store, and links to Roosevelt historic sites that the Association helps to preserve.
Those visiting theodoreroosevelt.org will find it easy to digest and error free. As expected, its point of view is one that extols the virtues of President Roosevelt. For example, the general biography of Roosevelt begins “Theodore Roosevelt is mostly remembered as the twenty-sixth President of the United States, but this astonishingly multifaceted man was a great many other things as well.” And concludes, “Much of what he achieved affects each and every American today and his name and personality have become part of the collective icon for what America stands for at its best.“ From a general overview of the site, most of the content is written by Association members in a simple style well suited to general audiences. Some fresh content indicates that the site is updated regularly although no “last modified” dates could be found.
The main failing of this site is its navigation. The home page has four separate navigational areas to it. There are two navigational areas for highlighted features, one for main sections of the site, and one miscellaneous navigation containing the task functions contact, join, give, shop, and search. An average visitor would need to spend more time than he cares to just sorting out all of these links to find the one that is best suited to for what he is looking. More likely, he will click on the first thing that mildly interests him, possibly sending him off in the wrong direction.(1) To compound matters, links intended to highlight special features appear on the left hand side in a vertical arrangement. By convention, a vertical list of links on the left side of a page is used for global navigation to get to major areas of the site rather than for special features. With its dark blue background overshadowing other navigation on the page, users can easily mistake it for the main site navigation rather than a sidebar. Following these links could throw a visitor into a small distant corner of the site rather than leading them into more content rich pages.(2)
Once a visitor has taken a wrong turn off the home page, there is virtually no other place to go. Navigation on sub pages of the site is grossly inconsistent. Some pages, such as Roosevelt’s biography, contain a left navigation bar of links to related content, while others, such as the Roosevelt family tree, do not contain any navigation except inconspicuous buttons back to the home page and to the previous page. The navigation is a labyrinth of links leading to all points of the site, from which there is no return. Navigation is so chaotic, that most visitors will overlook a big part of valuable content.
A significant help to the navigation is the search engine and indexes. Considering the difficulty of having a search engine, the Association deserves credit for including one. It would be even more useful were it to work from the home page. Terms entered into the search box on the home page lead to another search form, rather than search results, something easily fixed. Indexes by section and by alphabetical order also provide navigational assistance, except that they appear out of date, or at least incomplete. It is tough to figure out how they match the navigational structure of the home page.
The site also does much better with accessibility than navigation. The majority of the site downloads reasonably quickly. The home page downloads in about 28 seconds, at the most, on a 56k dial up connection, but most of the other pages download in 10 to 20 seconds. The one notable exception is the “Photo Biography of Theodore Roosevelt”. Although it is a graphics intensive page, poor designs sends its download time to over 7 minutes. It is a problem easily solved by resizing the original images to reduce their file size rather than using large images, scaled down in the HTML code. The site also does an excellent job of accommodating several screen resolutions. The home page fits the widely accepted web standard 800x600 resolution, while the rest of the site fits an even leaner 640x480. That is perfect for libraries and other public access internet venues that the audience for theodoreroosevelt.org would frequent. However, visually impaired visitors will have a tough time with this site. It has few alt tags, labels, or other code features that would make it usable by a screen reader.
Aesthetically, the site has a nice color scheme, consistently readable fonts, and a few nice graphics. The home page graphic of Roosevelt in mid-speech is a great introduction to the site, but the disjointed narrative at the bottom of the page is both unnecessary and distracting. One suspects that it is there to increase search rankings, which is not a reliable or professional practice anyway. Most pages have a common color scheme creating nice cohesiveness to the site, but there are a few pages that have a completely different scheme altogether. Considering there is no consistent navigation either, the effect is jarring.
Public History Criteria
It’s a shame that theodoreroosevelt.org is difficult to use, because there are some parts of the site that create the possibility of a great online experience. With a dynamic figure like Theodore Roosevelt, it is difficult to argue that there is not enough material to create a fantastic site centered on him. Roosevelt was a hunter, politician, writer, and soldier among others. During his administration he dealt with all sorts of controversial issues, including burgeoning labor unions, race relations, and civil rights. There are plenty of issues and many points of view to include in a web site devoted to Theodore Roosevelt, but the Theodore Roosevelt Association presents only a fraction of these.
The overall interpretive style of the site is consistent with the theory that it is great men that make history with very little attention to other historical perspectives. Narratives focus an uncritical eye on Roosevelt and the way he shaped the world around him. Even when attempts are made to include African Americans, women, or the labor movement it is a one-sided view that glosses over imperfections and ignores any nuances. For example, in the section entitled, “On African Americans”, writer Linda Milano states that Roosevelt had a “good record of treatment of African Americans.” She lists his dinner with Booker T. Washington, his speech against lynching, and his appointment of African Americans to government posts. While admitting that Roosevelt botched his handling of the “Brownsville Incident” in which 167 soldiers were wrongly accused of shooting up the town, she points out that Roosevelt had several loyal African American employees to whom he was good. Milano does not mention that Roosevelt felt strongly that African Americans were inferior as a whole to whites and that the 15th Amendment was a “mistake.” As Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris points out, Booker T. Washington was confidant of the President’s but, Roosevelt only felt comfortable with Washington because he fit in well with white society.(3) In fact, Washington was criticized by many other blacks who felt that he was acting as an instrument of the President’s.(4) One question worth asking is what was happening in the United States that compelled Roosevelt to seek the advice of a prominent African American leader in the first place? These complexities in Roosevelt’s ideology and the social forces that shaped them are left unaccounted for on theodoreroosevelt.org. The Association at least addresses social history issues in its story of Roosevelt’s life, but the site's creators could have done a better job of presenting them in a broader and less traditional way.
As for its writing style, theodoreroosevelt.org is great for students conducting research for high school papers but lacks a certain academic integrity. Cited works are too few, and there are no opposing viewpoints of Roosevelt’s life (discounting the dozens of blind links to other sites), just a presentation of the facts as the Association sees them. The site’s saving grace for researchers is its extensive annotated bibliography. It is a thorough list of primary and secondary sources complete with insightful annotations. Since it was last updated in 1999, it is missing many of the articles written around the centennial of Roosevelt’s presidency and his recent rise in popularity, but it is a good place to start a research project.
Along with the bibliography, theodoreroosevelt.org leads to plenty of primary sources but has very few of its own. Most Roosevelt sources are hosted on other sites and only linked to from theodoreroosevelt.org. The only primary sources actually hosted on theodoreroosevelt.org are transcripts of several speeches, excerpts from "Average Americans In Olive Drab - The War As Seen By Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt," and a collection of photographs drawn from a Harvard collection. All of these sources lack meta information such as their physical location, and how they been altered for inclusion on theodoreroosevelt.org. Without that information, it is difficult for a researcher to trust these sources. The Association has a tradition of collecting Roosevelt documents that extends to the early part of the 20th Century, giving them a relationship to primary source documents that it could leverage to allow for posting on theodoreroosevelt.org. They should take advantage of that to add immense value to their site.
Even though the sources they link to include great resources such as Library of Congress multimedia and the complete text of Roosevelt’s works on Bartlby.com, the fact that theodoreroosevelt.org does not host these sources itself, hurts the site's value. First, there is no central online location where one can search. Second, primary sources are not related to the other content on the site. It would be nice to see primary sources integrated with secondary sources to make them relevant. The benefit to history students would be a learning experience in how to craft an interpretation using primary sources.
In fact, there is not much to actively encourage students to learn more about Roosevelt. There is a kid's section, but it is mainly lengthy articles and a showcase of children’s writings. The articles are well written but do not contain nearly enough photos, dancing animals, or brightly colored graphics that are the type of thing that entertains children. Also missing are any sort of games, or interactive features to engage young minds. Some students are engaged by an effort to showcase children’s work. One fun example is a link to student work from Theodore Roosevelt Elementary school in Iowa City.
Displaying children’s work in just one of the ways that theodoreroosevelt.org reaches out to its community. The TRA uses the site to extend its mission in other areas besides promoting education about Roosevelt’s life. They use the site to showcase their efforts to preserve Roosevelt historic sites, raise money through book sales, and encourage local participation. They do an effective job of obtaining site material from members. As mentioned, this creates a narrow interpretive standpoint but could be a great way to create ownership of the site from a broad member base. Their “Yahoo!” sponsored discussion group is also a nice way to hear from their community of users. It would be better if there were a discussion group hosted locally so visitors did not have to register to view its postings, but it is a nice start.
The overall impression of theodoreroosevelt.org is of a good start, but the site needs lots of work. The site has a generally good aesthetic feel to it and a few nice graphics. They also deserve credit for including a search engine, designing for various screen resolutions, keeping the page sizes small, and creating a somewhat consistent look and feel. But, their efforts fall short of producing a quality site, because of tangled navigation, scattered content, and elements which are just plain out of synch.
The score theodoreroosevelt.org received is 110 points, or three earths, but that is not an accurate reflection of how good the site is. It makes some honest efforts but falls short on some critical design issues. Its navigation and some design aspects are hopelessly confused, making the site near impossible to use. That is a chasm in the foundation that just cannot be patched. Although publichistory.org’s review criteria places a greater importance on content than form, in this case form comes close to ruining any value the content has. That is not to say the content is perfect. The Theodore Roosevelt Association’s agenda of celebrating the life of Roosevelt funnels interpretive material into a singular view of his life. Primary source material is scarce, and what does exist is squandered by not integrating it into secondary sources.
The real shame is that given this site’s high profile in search engines, it is the ranking web authority for people all across the country who want to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt. That is golden opportunity but also a big responsibility, one that this site just is not up to yet.
- Audiences and mission are clearly addressed.
- Easy to read, but narrow in focus
- Sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Association, but with their bias.
- Many opportunities to contact them provided.
- No last modified dates, but some recent content.
- Too many external links create a loss of control over content, possibly leading to bad links over time.
Value Added Features
- Search Engine is a great benefit, but does not work properly from the home page.
- Sitemap also would help, but it does not match the site.
- Navigation is not very well organized.
- Site is extremely difficult to browse
- Accessibility is good for download times and screen resolutions, but bad for visually impaired.
Aesthetics/Visual Clarity & Appeal
- Mostly consistent theme
- Nice color scheme
- Bad use of text on the home page.
- Inconsistent background on some pages
- Nice first effort, but it falls way short of being a quality site due to poor navigation and to design elements that are out of synch.
Interpretation of Materials
- Lacks academic integrity
- Narrow interpretation with limited forays into social history.
- Written to a style suitable for young students
- Lots of additional sources
Primary Source Documents
- They are all hosted by others, making consistency and searchability impossible.
- A few gems such as Bull Moose speech and Ted Roosevelt’s memories, but not adequately documented
- Not sufficiently integrated with secondary sources
- Interactive features are lacking
- Inclusion of student work encourages participation
- Too few graphics, too many words
- No curriculum aids for teachers
- Heavy involvement from Association members.
- Sponsorship of a discussion group.
- Fundraising through the site.
1. For a great explanation of this type of user behavior see Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. Return to Text
2. See Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen. Return to Text
3. Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex. 2001, 52-53. Return to Text
4. See http://douglassarchives.org/mill_a66.htm for one such example. Return to Text
Point Assessment for Theodore Roosevelt.org
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)
|Permanence and Timeliness||6/15|
|Value Added Features||12/15|
Public History Specific Criteria
|Interpretation of Materials||18/40|
|Primary Source Documents||6/20|
|Promotion of a Community of Interest||20/20|
Total: 110 points -- 3 Earths
Rich Hephner (firstname.lastname@example.org
) is a web architect with eight years experience in web design and several years experience as a musuem professional. He has a Master's degree in History from Virginia Tech where he focused on early 20th Century European history. He currently works for a large IT consulting company in Washington, D.C., and is involved in the content management of one
of the internet's most popular government public history web sites.
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