History websites share a common medium (the web), but there are many ways to conceptualize an online history project. Most history websites reviewed in the Journal of American History fall into one of the following categories, although some sites combine genres. Keep these categories in mind and evaluate each website on its own terms.
Archive: a site that provides a body of primary sources.
Electronic Essay/Exhibit: a secondary source created specifically for the web that interprets the past. These often incorporate primary sources, but within the presentation of a historical narrative or argument.
Teaching Resource: a site that provides online assignments and other resources specifically geared toward history teaching.
The reviewing criteria will vary depending on the category. An archival site, for example, should be evaluated based on: the quality of the materials presented; the care with which they have been prepared, organized, edited, and introduced; the ease of navigation; and the usefulness to teachers, students, and scholars. How comprehensive is the archive? Are there biases in what has been included or excluded? Does the archive offer a point of view or interpretation? As with other types of reviews, you are providing guidance to readers on the usefulness of the site in their teaching or scholarship. At the same time, you are participating in a community of critical discourse and trying to improve the quality of work in the field of digital humanities.
Within a single category, websites can vary significantly. An online exhibition can be directed primarily at a scholarly audience or a public audience or it may have features for each group. It would be unfair to fault a website designed for the general public for failing to trace the latest nuances in scholarship, but it would be fair to note that the creators had not taken current scholarship into account. Online exhibitions and essays should be judged by the quality of their interpretation: What version of the past is presented? Is it grounded in historical scholarship? Is it original in its interpretation or mode of presentation?
Classroom-oriented sites would be judged by the quality of the scholarship underlying them, but the originality and usefulness of the pedagogical approach is also relevant. Will this site be useful to teachers and students? At what level(s)?
Reviews of websites should also address questions of navigation and presentation. Consider what, if anything, the digital medium adds to the historical work being presented. Does the digital format allow the creators to do something different or better than what has been done in books or films? Have the creators of the site made effective use of the medium? How easy is it to find specific materials and to find your way around the site?
Address the following four areas in your website review:
Some history websites, especially archives, are enormous and it is not possible to read every document or visit every link. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1940, part of the Library of Congress American Memory collection, for example, includes 2,900 documents that range in length from 2,000 to 15,000 words each. The reviewer could hardly be expected to read every word, but systematic sampling of the contents can reveal patterns and scope and close reading of selected sources will provide clues about the quality of the digitization, sourcing, and presentation. Try to provide readers with a sense of the kinds of material available and an estimate of the scope or quantity of each.
One final way that websites differ from books, exhibits, and films is that they are often works in progress. Thus, we ask that you indicate when you visited the site (this could be a range of dates). If significant changes are in progress, mention that in the review or let us know that we should wait until the changes are complete to review the website. If you need additional information about a site in order to complete a review or need access to a subscription-based website, let us know and we will contact the creators on your behalf.
Unless otherwise specified, reviews should be 500 words in length—the standard length of book reviews. The JAH strictly enforces these word limits.
Reviews will appear in the printed journal, its online companion at History Cooperative, and on the History Matters website (co-sponsored by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the American Social History Project at the City University of New York).
Name of site/title (Italics),
Who created the website? Who maintains it (if different)?
Dates when you reviewed the website.
Immigration to the United States, 1789 - 1930, http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/. Created and maintained by the Open Collections Project, Harvard University Library. Reviewed May to Aug. 2007.
Presidential Recordings Program, http://www.whitehousetapes.org/. Created and maintained by the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Reviewed Sept. to Nov. 2006.
Editor, Web Reviews, Journal of American History
Director of Educational Projects, Center for History and New Media,
George Mason University
updated May 27, 2008