Website Evaluation

Review –

Do History (http://www.dohistory.org) DoHistory was developed and maintained by the Film Study Center (http://www.filmstudycenter.org/) at Harvard University and is hosted and maintained by the Center for History and New Media (http://chnm.gmu.edu/) George Mason University. Copy write 2000. Reviewed January 16, 2007.

Do History is primarily a website designed to illustrate the process of historical inquiry for people, through Laura Thatcher Ulrich’s work on A Midwife’s Tale. Aimed at non-historians, it hopes to attract people with a wide range of interests, including Martha Ballard, genealogy, midwifery and herbal medicines, diaries, using primary sources, and historical films. It also has suggestions for using this information into a classroom, with some suggested activities and age-appropriate themes.

As such, this website is designed rather simply, with easy to read pages and numerous cross-links between various parts of the site. It balances explanatory text nicely with images, maps, and primary source materials. Thus, it is relatively easy for both people with specific interests and those with little general knowledge to find what interests them.

While the appearance is relatively simple, the creators took a great deal of care in building the site. Every single page of Martha Ballard’s diary was carefully scanned in, with the text enhanced where it was faded, so more serious scholars can engage in their own research. From the diary page, visitors can click on a plain text version of her diary, carefully transcribed for those uninterested in decoding 18th century handwriting. Several activities were included so that more casual visitors could also engage with her diary. A Java Applet called Magic Lens allows visitors to practice reading her handwriting by dragging a box over her writing to reveal the text written beneath. Another section allows visitors to transcribe her writing into text boxes and check their accuracy, while a third goes to a busier page to explain her notation system.

Keeping with their accessible theme, the diary can be browsed by date or searched by keyword. For students or with specific interests, a number of specific stories or themes have been pulled out for easier navigation. Another classroom tailored activity is the presentation of two specific stories using Martha Ballard’s diary and more tradition primary sources such as men’s diaries and town records. Evidence for two distinct stories is presented which can be viewed in sequence or by switching between perspectives. While slightly artificial, this is an excellent example for non-specialists in what historians actually do, and the many challenges and rewards of piecing together historical events.

Do History has sections written to encourage people to investigate their own genealogy or family diaries. These are written at an accessible level, with hints on starting a research project or conducting oral histories that are encouraging and upbeat.

The book by Laura Thatcher Ulrich and the subsequent movie are the subject of another large section of the website. This section, while feeling a bit haphazard, also has some useful information. While the average student or casual visitor would not be interested in reading Ulrich’s grant application for the research project, it is an interesting read for graduate students looking for examples. The interview with the author, however, would have broader appeal, as would the behind the scenes perspective on making a historical movie. Both flow rather like the extra-features on a DVD, and are presented in an engaging, readable manner. Large sections of her A Midwife’s Tale are available from the website, which is an extremely nice feature as well.

Overall, while this is not the flashiest website out there, when technology is used it is useful, not gimmicky. The web designers made accessibility their overarching theme, with easy navigation, clear writing, and numerous opportunities to engage with the primary source. There is plenty of guidance for the more casual user, while historians can dig into the material themselves or find useful models for their own work.

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