Despite our ambitions, this article does not confront some of the very real challenges that lie ahead for digital scholarship in history. The process of producing and designing this electronic article has uncovered fertile areas for future development.
– Edward L. Ayers and William G. Thomas III in The Differences Slavery Made
Ayers and Thomas wrote those words a decade ago and their digital article certainly shows it age. Their research project is a fascinating look at the role that slavery played in the development of two counties (one in Pennsylvania, the other in Virginia) prior to the Civil War. The evidence is compelling and well-written. However, its presentation, at least to the eyes of the 2013 reader, is at times clumsy and stilted.
Instead of being embedded in the text, the graphs and maps used as visual evidence have to be opened up in separate tabs today, but in 2003 it would have been in entirely new windows. Also cumbersome is that to move along in the digital project, one has to scroll back to the top of each page to then select the next section. Placing this index at both the top and bottom of the page would have done wonders for navigation.
Ayers and Thomas realized these limitations it seems at the time. The grounds for “fertile development” they identified were:
- how to present narrative more effectively
- how to represent event and change
- how to analyze language more precisely
- how to create visualizations as compelling and complete as narrative
The ability to do these four things has certainly improved over the last decade as the proficiency of web tools has increased. The advent of tabbed web browsing allows for a quick skip to tangential information and quick return to the main body. More sophisticated scripts have created more visually impressive ways to present change over time.These things help emulate the actual world which is quite often tangential and visually stimulating.
Still, it remains in the hands of the digital historian, or any web writer, to articulately utilize these tools. Just because a map or graph has been embedded into the heart of an article’s text doesn’t necessarily mean
it will make the article more cogent.