DoHistory. Principal Investigator: Richard P. Rogers, Producer: Kristi Barlow, Editorial Director: Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, History & Education Consultant: Judith Moyer, Designer/Art Director: Juliet Jacobson, Associate Producer: Cecil Esquivel, Production Staff: R. Alan Leo Jr., Abby Branch, Perl/Java programmers: Bijoyini Chatterji, Ricardo Guzman, Yuri Ostrovsky, Binoy Samuel, Shawn Samuel, Jun Shen, Andy Sisson, Photographers: Dana Salvo, Steve Borack, Photography Coordinator: Hua Dong, Graphics Production: Robin Marlowe, Illustrator: R. P. Hale, General Assistants: Melissa Chu, Shannon Densmore, Melinda Kelson, Makambo Tshionyi, Alex Olch, Pilapa Esara, Lauren Klein, Transcribers: Michael Barr, Courtney Ellis, Shira Feldman, Jesse Kean, Elizabeth Makrides, Andy Sisson, Jennifer Shin, Rob Chan

Excerpt from Martha Ballard’s diary. From the DoHistory
Web site.
The DoHistory web site is an exceedingly rich, detailed, digital exploration of both the text and film of the Pulitzer Prize winner, A Midwife’s Tale, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Both the book and the film chronicled the life of Martha Ballard, a healer, midwife, wife, and mother from Hallowell, Maine, during last years of eighteenth and first years of the nineteenth century. The DoHistory site aims, as the authors say, to “… explore the process of piecing together the lives of ordinary people in the past.…Although DoHistory is centered on the life of Martha Ballard, you can learn basic skills and techniques for interpreting fragments that survive from any period in history.” On both counts, the DoHistory authors succeed admirably.

From the home page the site provides three avenues into the site—one based on general interests, the second based on subject areas, and third based on a search engine. Essentially, these are three ways for three different audiences to access the same materials. The interest areas invite the viewer to examine the site by looking topics of interest to a general audience:

The subject area section is designed for those who are perhaps already familiar with the book or film and is divided into:

The third, the search engine, is for those in the “where was that thing anyway” or “I know I found it on this site somewhere” camps. (There is also a separate search engine for the diary itself.)

Detail from Birds eye View Map of Hallowell, Maine, 1878.
From the DoHistory Web site.
Although the site is complex and extraordinarily useful, three areas standout from the rest: the online diary, the primary source collection, and advice to teachers. In all these areas, the site demonstrates how digital technology can add to a scholarly presentation aimed at both the generalist and specialist. Nevertheless, the site’s crown jewel is the online diary. Several bits of Java wizardry allow visitors to explore the diary more deeply by use of the “Magic Lens. As a viewer drags the lens over a diary page, the lens translates small bits of the manuscript text into standard print. A visitor can, as a result, begin to make sense of the eighteenth-century handwriting and experience the problems and exhilaration of dealing with a holographic manuscript. The same is true of “Try Transcribing.” In this section, viewers have an opportunity to assay their skills at transcription by typing in snippets of text beneath the original. Visitors receive feedback both visually and aurally via listening to a QuickTime audio file or by clicking a button that “flips” the correct transcription into place under the original.

Excerpt from Martha Ballard’s diary.
From the DoHistory Web site.
The small section, Decoding the Diary, furnishes help on the structure, spelling, and abbreviations used in the diary. In addition, there are ways of accessing both a text and printable version of each page of the diary. (Although the manuscript page images are high resolution or 200 dpi, they are still JPEGs and the results are not altogether satisfactory. Despite this drawback the pages are legible, produce decent laser prints, and can serve as the basis for a fine primary source exercise.) Taken together, these features provide a solid introduction to the diary as a whole and to working with primary sources in manuscript form.

Detail from Bird's Eye View Map of Hallowell, Maine, 1878.
Detail from Bird's Eye View Map of Hallowell, Maine, 1878.
From the DoHistory Web site.
By the same token, the Archive of Primary Documents is extremely effective. Rather than limiting the documents to transliterated text versions of the primary sources, the authors have taken pains to provide images of the manuscript or printed materials as well as images and interactive maps. (The maps might have benefited from MrSid technology, the same interactive strategy used in the Library of Congress's Panoramic Map Collection. An interested reader can compare the MrSid version of the Hallowell map with the DoHistory rendition to glean some idea of the differences in resolution and interactivity.) There are also passages from legal records, land transfers, and secondary sources—all of which can be put to good use in the classroom. There also enough of these items to permit use as an in-class exercise, a collateral homework assignment, or comparative projects.

Navigational Graphic.
From the DoHistory Web site.
All too often the teaching sections of a web site are insipid and uninspired. DoHistory, in contrast, in its pedagogical area makes specific suggestions about how the site might be adapted to the classroom. These range from using the search capabilities of the site to help students practice finding information to more complex activities like working with eighteenth-century handwriting and transciption. In particular, the site is flexible enough for the classrooms that have minimal or no computer access by suggesting paper-based activities. This strategy takes into account the fact that much of what teachers do still involves using paper and photocopy reproduction. The teaching gambits also furnish a nice mix of collaborative and solo, in- and out-of-class, and digital and traditional activities. Last but not least, it is not necessary (although it would be nice) that a teacher or school purchase the film; the site is self-contained and can be used with or without the documentary.

Like history monographs, web sites have their shortcomings. DoHistory is no exception. The site makes a great many demands on the viewer's computer with its Java and Shockwave implementations. Visitors are well advised to check their plug-ins and browsers settings before they begin. While the making-of-the-film section of the site is interesting and useful, especially for a prospective documentary maker, the QuickTime movies are large by web benchmarks—one of them is 27 MB—and will tax a 56.6 modem. For those with the time and inclination, however, they are well worth the effort. In the end, DoHistory might possibly be the most fully realized and sophisticated history web site available on the Web today. It exhibits aesthetic prowess, clear navigable information design and apparatus, and technical sophistication. Clearly, the site was designed and written by authors who understand what digital technology can bring to history and how to put it to use in realizing deeper historical inquiry. DoHistory is, in short, history on the web at its best and raises the Web bar another notch.

Paula Petrik
University of Maine

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Web Site Review of DoHistory
Copyright © 2000, 2001 by The Journal for MultiMedia History

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