COMPARATIVE WEBSITE REVIEW
By Ken Smith
The two website I chose were both related to North Dakota history. The first was prepared by the History Channel, and is at http://www.history.com/topics/us-states/north-dakota, and the second is part of a project called “The US 50” which is at http://www.theus50.com/northdakotaI picked these for several reasons. First, they come up on the first page of a Google search for “north Dakota History” Second, they are both fairly small sites. Third, they both appear to have been created under commercial auspices and seemed likely to have been assembled by people who do not work on North Dakota history as professionals. Amateurs, in other words.
The main page for the US 50 site on North Dakota informs us that
North Dakota is one of the great states that make up the United States of America. We have gathered large amounts of information about North Dakota into one place from various sources such as the state Governor’s office, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the US Census, the US Postal Service and many other authorities. So whether you are looking for North Dakota history, the state bird of North Dakota, or the best places to visit in North Dakota, the answers are just a click away.
The generic first line is a giveaway that this is not a professional history site. The second line suggests that they have done some online searching to amass their information, but that what will be found at this site is probably not coming from anyone who has done much formal study of the state. So, I expected to find some basic information that should be generally reliable, though probably not anything profound. That’s OK, because sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed.
Here is a screenshot of the site:
I like the simple organization. The square boxes off to the side remind me of things I saw on websites I was visiting nearly 20 years ago. Personally, I like the simple style. In any case, the design seems functional to me. The categories make sense. Below the introduction is another series of links that are also straightforward.
Since I was mainly looking for what the sites had to say about North Dakota History, I read through the eleven paragraph, 1,324-word section on “North Dakota History” which took just a few minutes. It’s not a bad overview, considering the limitations of the website’s purpose. It basically runs from the glacial age to the second Dakota boom, but says nothing about the state since the first decade or two of the twentieth century. Perhaps the writer thought that “history” meant things that happened at least 100 years ago, or perhaps the writer thinks that North Dakota has just stood still since then. The latter probably isn’t the case because the other links (Historic figures, Outdoors, Tourism, Governors, Cities, and Colleges) all feature information that mostly falls in the last 100 years.
I noted that the “Historic Figures” section only features five people. Lawrence Welk is at the top, Actress Dorothy Stickney fron Dickinson, artist Ivan Dmitri from Harvey, baseball player Roger Maris, and journalist Eric Sevareid. The “state quiz” is equally sparse: only five questions are offered. The section on geography has only two items: a US outline map of states with ND highlighted in orange, and a link to Google Maps centered on the state. I would like to have seen a map with at least some detail of the four or five geographical/geological zones of the state, and perhaps distinguishing the variance in landforms, so that people do not make the mistake of thinking that the entire state is just one bland postage stamp.
The History Channel’s North Dakota site is, oddly enough, focused more on current history. It features a wallpaper photo of a buffalo against a green prairie landscape: one might expect a historical website on the state to have a historic photo, perhaps a 120-year old picture of a prairie town or a steam threshing team or even a buffalo. Below the buffalo is a window for a four-minute video called “Silicon Prairie” which highlights the tech development in North Dakota, touts the low unemployment rate and low cost of living. It refers to “sunny Fargo” and claims the town has more days of sunlight than most anyplace in the country (which I doubt, given the last few winters). The video says nothing about oil and gas development, which is odd since the summary line in the video refers to the factors that “shape today’s North Dakota.”
Here is a screenshot of the site:
Between the buffalo and the video is a one-paragraph summary of the state’s history, running from 1803 (the Lewis and Clark Expedition) to statehood in 1889, then mentioning the “scenic badlands” of the Roosevelt National Park. Below the video window is a list of basic facts about the state: capital; population; size; state nicknames; state motto; state tree; state flower; and state bird. Below this is a section of “Interesting Facts” consisting of exactly six items, all of them very short.
A four-box section near the top of the page takes the viewer to “Article” (the main page), “Videos” (one video is provided, mentioned above), “photo galleries” and “shop.” The photo section consists of exactly nine photos, which are nice but topically narrow. The “shop” section is disappointing, as it simply links the viewer to the currently featured history videos for sale by the history channel, which have nothing to do with North Dakota.
The North Dakota us50 website and the History Channel website are both small and simple, with very cursory information provided. I like the interface of the us50 site better, though understandably some will see it as clunky and old-fashioned. If I were putting together a website for a historical subject (say, for the State Normal and Industrial School at Ellendale), I would probably like to use a similar navigation format, but I would use stylistic devices to make the site look like a historical project and not a commercial one. Instead of square boxes, I’d probably want to use period-looking boxes, perhaps with calligraphy-like print.
The History Channel site is not as clunky looking, but in reality it’s no more sophisticated than the us50 site. It’s very present-oriented. Though both sites are utilitarian in nature (appealing to practical interests rather than a more liberal, knowledge-based pursuit), they both have some value. People who know nothing of North Dakota would get some ideas, not necessarily balanced, but not necessarily deceiving either. Even the best thought out and designed sites are going to be used in very selective ways. There does not seem to be any way to force people to study these sites thoroughly. The web by nature invites lots of clicks, jumping from place to place.
When I think of historical websites I often think of massive projects like the Victorian Web or firstworldwar.com. But these are so far-reaching they are hard to evaluate. I think there is value in smaller sites, with limited links and pages, but my big concern is the wise and careful selection of materials. Also, one must consider what audience one is trying to reach. Potentially anyone, from an elementary school kid to a serious history professional, may end up looking at the site, and so the designer just has to be aware of this. Designs that somehow hold the viewer’s attention for longer periods, rather than inviting them to click around quickly, would be my preference (if such designs exist).
It would be nice to incorporate somehow some of the interactive elements that come with social media. The idea of just putting up a set of pages has its simple attraction, and I am hesitant to weigh down site pages with lots of links to social media sharing engines and so forth. I put a high value on simplicity, but it’s probably not wise to be simple just for simplicity’s sake.
Ideally, I think, a history website will have a simple to use front end that is uncluttered and visually attractive. Behind the front end, though, it will have a lot of content areas that can be valuable to people who want to go into greater depth. It should be respectable from a scholarly point of view without being inaccessible to beginners or outsiders.
For this review I sketched quickly in pencil a map of both sites. I have seen “site maps” on some websites (PBS sites often have them) but these were both so simple that there would not be much point. I do like the fact that with the 50states site, no matter where you go you always have the boxes to the side to click back into, so you always know where you are. The History channel site kept its boxes at the top at all times Other than that, there seemed to be nothing notable about how these sites were organized.