Reading Blog 8 (History 697): Just How Active Should Interactive Be?

The search for a dialectical, interactive, historically focused  Web paradigm that enhances a user’s ability to experience history online still seems to have eluded us.  And by “us,” I mean those historians who believe in the necessity of the visual component to enhance our understanding and experience of history.  I agree fully with Joshua Brown’s contention that “[o]ur consciousness of the past is inextricably bound by pictures”; but I am equally sympathetic to his lamentation in the same 2004 article, “History and the Web, From the Illustrated Newspaper to Cyberspace,” that “multimedia has failed to coalesce into a new form and still operates as a fragmented collection of different types of information.”  At the time Brown published this article, Edward Ayers’s remarkably innovative and groundbreaking Valley of the Shadows Web site was a mere 10 years old. Ayers and his colleagues had struggled to form a new type of  online “language” through multimedia that would allow users to interact with (albeit poorly) scanned images of primary-source documents assembled in a such a way that they — the users — could ascertain the nature of the historians’ argument in the absence of a stated thesis. In other words, Ayers and company were seemingly trying to make pseudo-historians of the interactive Web user, an effort that I still applaud. But Ayers’s efforts, in my estimation (and as as Brown further attested), fell flat — unfortunately. More than a decade later,  the Valley of the Shadows site is still up and running with virtual galleries (like The Lost Museum site) that allow users to move through the evidence (now no longer scanned but transcribed) in a sequence of his or her choosing. But the historian’s “heavy hand” must intercede at some point to distill in narrative form the essential aspects of the argument. Thus, we as historians cannot seem to escape the need to engage in what Brown termed the “resolutely textual” nature of the historical argument. I wish I had the answer to this conundrum, but I don’t.

Like Joshua Brown, I am a firm advocate of marrying up the textual with the visual in order to communicate a historical argument more effectively. In previous blogs, I explained how I struggled with two different publishers to include as many maps and photographs as possible into my two World War II-themed books and how the Web has helped to cast off the strictures of such cost-based limitations. But how can we interweave the textual and the visual in an interactive way on the Web that will bring a new experience to the historically interested user? I struggled with this problem as I planned my Final Project for the course. How could I marry my visual representations to my argument in a unique way?  First of all, I recognized that I could not escape the textually based nature of an argument presented in a traditional linear form.  The closest I could come to allowing a user to select the flow of the argument was by organizing the different parts of my text into discrete hyperlinks arranged at the top of my Web page.  Users could begin with the introduction or conclusion and then work through the argument thematically in a sequence of their choosing.  But I could not get away without embedding notes into the main body of the text to ensure that my analysis remained clearly grounded in primary- and secondary-source material. In effect, I was simply adapting a monograph-style format to a Web-based structure. Not much innovation there.

Where my Web-based argument took on a new dimension, though, was in how I planned to use images to illustrate the impact of my historical assertions. Since my analysis focused on the Army’s print-media campaign to sustain all soldiers’ motivation to fight and win, the visual impact of presenting images of the print products themselves would add a new dimension of insight into my argument. I selected high-quality digital images that I took of the many print sources I owned and sprinkled them strategically and carefully throughout each page of my Web site.  The positive effect exceeded my expectations; the illustrations added greatly to the substance of my argument. But the one problem nagging me was that a user could not interact with the images by enhancing them or manipulating them. I researched Zoomify and found that the technique of enlarging specific details of each cover of The Stars and Stripes, YANK: The Army Weekly, and Army Talks was not what I wanted for my users (but Zoomify is really cool for things like maps, so I’m keeping it handy for future Web projects!). I wanted my users to see enhanced — but complete — versions of these publications’ covers so that they could understand the collective effect and visual impact of how the Army made them appeal to the average soldier. I decided, for interactivity purposes , that I would try the gallery approach and include images that, when selected, would jump to a page with a larger (but not overly large) version of the publication so that the user could more fully appreciate the combined use of the headlines, photographs, and feature stories unique to each edition.  The downside was that I had to create separate HTML pages (12 in all!), each with the larger image that I linked to the smaller image located on the gallery page. The final effect was worth the effort, though.  My user audience now had two interactive features on the Web site: (1) sequencing choices using the navigation bar, and (2) the ability to view 12 enhanced versions of the publications referenced in my historical argument.  But was I offering enough interactive options to keep a user engaged? Hard to say. I’m a rank amateur at the Web-site trade, and I’m still learning. Perhaps audio and video clips from period news reports would further enhance the argument and a sense of the historical period that I’m describing. But those approaches are well beyond my abilities right now. Search features and surveys seem okay, but I’m not sure they would be useful for my Final Project Web site. The gallery seems to be my best option for the moment.

In sum, Joshua Brown’s 2004 assertion that we have yet to crack the code on a new Web-based “language” to communicate history more effectively on the Web still holds true today.  We’ve certainly made some great strides thanks to software enhancements over the years, but I’m having a difficult time envisioning a replacement to that medium with which we historians communicate our historical arguments most effectively — the book.  The ability to add many more illustrations, photographs, and other visual representations to enhance our Web-based historical arguments is a step in the right direction, and I’m excited to see what I can feature in future Web sites. But finding a new “Web language” that will take us to the next level seems daunting at best.  We can only keep trying to find it through experimentation. Onward!

Steve Rusiecki

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