Why Digital?

Evaluating a digital project has always been a challenge. I have long wondered how (as a designer and a historian), one might balance the visual with the actual information that needs to be represented. This exercise of defining my own criteria for evaluation was helpful and sometimes challenging. When thinking about websites and archives, I have listed websites I have found useful either in argument i.e. they are related to my own work and/or are aesthetically and/or pedagogically insightful.

Digital History Projects of interest to me:


Railroads and the Making of Modern America

Mapping Inequality



Digital archives:

Seeking Michigan [although this does not have archival material, it does have detailed guides which have proved to be immensely helpful]

Governing Michigan [Official repository for information on the state government of Michigan, including historical documents]

Ad*Access [Contains over 7000 advertisements from the United States and Canada on a variety of issues]

Digital Collections at Wayne State University [Digital Collections at Wayne State University, contains important and interesting visual material]

Making of Modern Michigan [contains material from over 52 libraries across the state]

Papers of the War Department: 1784-1800 [contains important historical documents]

Library of Congress

French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan

Great Lakes and Seaway Shipping

Marine Historical Society of Detroit

For the love of maps:

Park Philadelphia

I included this not because it is a digital history or humanities project but because it is an interesting and accessible use of tools. It makes otherwise difficult to decode parking regulations easy to access. Having personally used this to park overnight in West Philadelphia, I would love to see more websites like this for all cities.


Context and argument: What is the object of study? Why is it important? How is this project particularly suited to the digital medium? How and what does the project contribute to the field at large? Does the website have a interpretative element?

Evidence/sources: what kind of material does the project use? What are its source bases? Are any of the sources/archives open source? Are any parts of the project crowdsourced? How does the use of the particular sources impact the overall utility and reach of the website?

Representation/aesthetics: How does the website represent its argument? Are all the links/animations/visualization links functional? Do they load unevenly on different kinds of devices i.e. mobile vs laptop vs desktop? Does a change in divide impact the overall look and feel of the website? What is the ease of navigability of the website? How text heavy/image heavy is it? How does it cite sources?

Methods: What technologies and tools does the website use? How are these explained/rationalized? How do the creators bridge disciplinary methodological boundaries? are there any pedagogical implications? Are there any limitations exposed in the methodologies?

Audience:who is the intended audience? Is it a discipline and/or demographic specific audience? Or is it open to the public? How might this project appeal to its audiences and why?

Funding sources: who is funding the website? Are the funding sources obvious?

Rationalizing the Rubric:

Understanding the context and argument of a project is important because how a project sees itself, in my reading, determines how readable/legible it is. Understanding an authors (or multiple authors’) rationale for a project is important for the reader. A website does not always need to substitute a book or an article. And sometimes it does. Understanding the why and how of the digital medium’s use will help the reader evaluate its use.

Understanding the sources will help understand if the project is completely dependent on archival sources that may or not be subject to copyright issues. Furthermore, dissemination of copyrighted archival material presents a challenge. So much of the possible reach of a project depends on the kind of sources it uses.  

For an overtly visual medium, representation and aesthetics have obvious importance in a website. It is however important to understand why choices of text and/or vs visualization are made and to evaluate their impact on overall access. Furthermore, understanding the navigability of the website and how that is affected by design choices is another important factor. Furthermore, evaluating the change in navigability and access with a change in devices determines overall reach of the website.

Methods determine the ends. Understanding methodologies and tools might also explain any challenges in navigability and access.

Understanding intended audience might help explain design choices as well as how much sources are explained.

Funding sources are important because they are an important factor in determining, audience, tools (and thereby navigability, design).

Evaluating ‘Canals’

A project under the larger ‘American Panorama’ project at the University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab, ‘Canals’ stands out for the complexity of information it holds and represents in an accessible manner—it shows the growth of canals from 1820-1860.  Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, the website was designed by Stamen (https://stamen.com/work/)—a digital design and community firm based in San Francisco. The design firm specializes in designing maps and data visualizations. The map is authored by historians and staff at the Digital Scholarship Lab including Edward Ayers.

The ‘About this map’ section of the website lists the sources for the shape files as well as data sources. Primary sources include the annual reports of various canal commissions and commissioners. The website also uses secondary sources in the form of published documents and books.  While it is helpful to list the overall sources used, it is difficult to see where each data point was obtained from. In the overall scheme of things, knowing the source of each data point may not seem important but given the multitude of sources in play, it would be important to know which data points about commodities were estimates and which were recorded. Knowing the source of data points would reveal who was doing the recordkeeping and perhaps why. It would have been helpful if the authors had pointed out limitations of the data sources in greater depth.

The design and visualization are superlative. The map aims to represent canals as the “engines of trade, economic development, and travel in antebellum America” but showing “the spaces that canals connected but information about the goods they carried.” To do so, it uses Leaflet to recreate the actual canal/canal section on a map. Chronicling the development of the canal network into the Midwest, the map on the website shows the chronological expansion of canals that eventually connected the Midwest to the Northeast instead of the South, via the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  Given the variety and quantity of goods carried by canals, especially in a pre-railroad era, the website does an excellent job of finding a visual that helps one easily understand the importance of a commodity in the market based on volume—a dot. The size of the dot increases based on how important the commodity was. Commodities are also subdivided into Grains, wheat, tobacco; building materials; sundries; lumber/wood; ore and fuel; and agricultural products other than grains. Hovering over a commodity reveals is volume through a specific canal in a year. While is very easy to understand the type and volume of commodities that were carried by canals, it would have been helpful to understand how the creators came up with these categories. The completion of the Erie Canal in the mid-1820s was one of the most important developments that helped connect the Great Lakes to the Northeast. The timeline below the Leaflet map chronicles the development and decline of canals. Users can select a canal (they are listed alphabetically) to understand the chronology of its development. Zooming out of the map and toggling the timeline also allows the user to see the development of the canal system. Commodities load based on the time period and canal in question. While the website is extremely visually appealing, it misses an important element that might bring it together—an interpretative element. If the creators had put separate interpretative elements such as an accompanying essay and/or static elements such as photographs as well as archival material, it would have helped make better sense of the website. An interpretative element, in this context would also ahve been an important and useful pedagogical device.  Furthermore, the website does not load well on a mobile device making it difficult to access across devices.

The website is meant for a general audience. Yet, one could imagine a lay person not fully understand what they were looking at. I for one did not fully understand the website when I first saw it, and I like and study canals!  While the website claims that it hopes to show how important canals were to the creation and sustenance of markets and commodities, connecting the dots (pardon the bad pun) is difficult. For instance, the reader does not get a sense where the markets were: were they all in New York? Were there important regional markets? What directions did the commodities flow? These questions remain unanswered. Answering these questions might have made the website heavier and perhaps changed its visual vocabulary, but it would have helped make it more accessible and legible. That having been said however, this kind of granular data may not be available given that the Canals were developed in Antebellum America.

In conclusion, ‘Canals’ is a great website and an excellent start at trying to link together economic data with spatial and infrastructural data. Yet, there are issues of legibility and access. This is not to take away from a phenomenal website that links together very disparate kinds of data in a legible and (mostly) accessible manner, to tell a powerful story of infrastructural, economic, and cultural change in Antebellum America.