Historical websites offer a new and interactive way to experience and research history. Three such tools are interesting examples. https://www.medici.org is a website which links readers to a vast database (over 4 million items) that covers documents kept by the Medici family covering everyday life in Florence from the 16th to the 18th century. https://ancestry.ca is a genealogical website which provides access to personal and private data, immigration records, war records, census records and many other items that can assist individuals trying to establish their ancestry and genealogy. https://darwinproject.ac.uk is a website linking to a database containing more than 8,000 letters written by or to Charles Darwin.
The Darwin Project is a British website managed by the University of Cambridge. Charles Darwin wrote and received letters over his lifetime in order to study and obtain information for his scientific observations, so access to these letters provides a view into Darwin’s scientific study, and also his personal world. The website offers users the ability to search the database, and also provides scholarly blogs based on academic research. There are materials directed at high school students, post-graduate students and professional historians. The authors of this website have recognized that many users will not have the knowledge or ability to search the database and make it easy to navigate, while offering some pre-packaged information about Darwin’s life and body of work. However, this website does not encompass all of Darwin’s correspondence yet, and meaningful research does require historical background and knowledge.
Ancestry.ca can be a useful website, containing much basic North American information. It is directed at amateur genealogical researchers in an individual way, and encourages users to post their findings in a structured family tree. It offers a free trial period, but then requires a monthly fee to continue a subscription. This is frustrating because much of the information that the site contains can be found, free of charge, elsewhere. An example of this is Canadian Expeditionary Forces service records, which are available on government websites. Another drawback to this site is that genealogical information posted by individuals can be based on hearsay or recollection, without any substantiation. This can result in inaccuracies being passed on and there is no way to dispute it. Marketing of the site, and of site products such as DNA testing, can be overbearing once one has paid the monthly fee.
The Medici Project is the most ambitious website of the three, for several reasons. The Medici kept documents on just about everything connected with everyday life, so the data being used is immense. The website describes its mission as serving as an online research institute, so it targets the scholarly community. The material it houses needs to be translated from Italian to English, and while some of that is done for the user it does require background historical knowledge to appreciate this site. It is not as clearly laid out as the Darwin Project website, but offers more scholarly articles, descriptions of academic projects underway, and online courses for those interested. Providing access to an important online research institute, free of charge, almost makes the one criticism seem minuscule, but given the subject matter the website could look prettier.
Moreover, compared with the Darwin Project website, it is more difficult to navigate. It requires a lot of mouse clicks to get where you want to go, as a colleague of mine pointed out, and these days scrolling is more popular and easier. The Darwin Project allows scrolling more freely. (ancestry.ca is out of this discussion, because they charge to navigate further than the first page). The Darwin Project makes one feel that all of the information on the site is freely available, along with scholarly analysis and packaged information. The Medici website made one feel that the scholarly institute owned all the data and was only going to allow glimpses at its own pleasure. This raises the question, who should own historical data, and what responsibility do they have for making it accessible to the public?