Home > HIST 479, Museums, Uncategorized > What Makes a Good History Website?

What Makes a Good History Website?

Almost every research archive and historical museum has a website nowadays. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all websites are created equal. Some make clear that the staff places great importance on maintaining an aesthetically appealing, easily navigable, informative site. Others seem less concerned with using the web to draw traffic and interest in their institution. So what makes a good website? According to Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, historical websites should address three things: usability, aesthetics, and accessibility. With that in mind, I’ve looked at four websites to address the extent to which they satisfy these three requirements: the Newberry Library, the Chicago History Museum, the Swedish American Museum, and the Edgewater Historical Society . Each website serves as a useful tool for examining the utility of usability, aesthetics, and accessibility as frameworks for constructing a site. Above all, when considering these three facets, one must remember that the goal of a website dedicated to some facet of history must “enable and inspire [the user] to think about the past” (Cohen and Rosenzweig, 111).


Usability, simply put, is the extent to which a website is user-friendly. The best way, I’ve found, to judge the usability of a website is to judge its homepage. The homepage is the first thing you see, and it sets the tone for how the rest of the site is constructed. The best websites are constructed in a way that everything you need can be accesses quickly from the main page. The Newberry Library and the Chicago History Museum excel in this regard. Both sites rely on dynamic flash pages in the center of the homepage to draw attention to the most notable events, lectures, and exhibits featured at the institutions. The advantage to these flash pages is that it immediately offers the user a chance to find the most current events at the institution. The Newberry, for example, highlights an upcoming lecture, a recent short film on the Newberry’s collections, an update on a renovation project, and information about the newest exhibit.

The Swedish American Museum doesn’t use flash pages, but it, too, has an easily accessible website that is very user-friendly. The museum uses a three-part page divide to offer the visitor information easily. The main portion of the page is devoted to the latest news, with the second panel offering links and upcoming events, and the third panel listing the museum information, visiting hours, and location.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Edgewater Historical Society does not have a user-friendly site. There is no information made readily available, such as upcoming exhibits, hours, or lecture series. These items must be accessed through a series of links on the left side of the page. This forces the user to stumble upon important information rather than find them quickly as soon as they visit the site. In an age with so many options on the web, the longer a visitor needs to spend on the site looking for the information they want, the less likely that user will return. Instead, it’s far too easy for them to simply move on to the next site.


Cohen and Rosenzweig note four aspects of a good website design: contrast, proximity, alignment, and repeat designs (120-121). The Newberry and the Chicago History Museum excel in their aesthetic quality. These websites look almost like a magazine page. Thus the user is instantly viewing something familiar. Additionally, the dynamic flash pages are effective in enhancing the visual appeal of the website. They are able to add colorful and exciting images to the site to further draw in the visitor’s interest. These sites also rely on effective, drop down menus that load quickly and help prevent the page from unnecessary clutter. The Swedish American Museum also has an aesthetically appealing website. The Edgewater Historical Society, conversely, is designed with garish colors, a difficult-to-read font, and an awkward site design that evokes memories of old geocities pages.  This site has a series of information placed on the front page.  To read all this text, the user needs to continually scroll down.  This leads to a feeling or disorientation.  The Edgewater Historical Society could have made this more effective by breaking this information into digestible chunks.


Finally one must consider the role of accessibility. This is the ultimate goal of a website as a site is no good if it can’t draw traffic. Perhaps the most effective way to do so in this age is through the use of new media, specifically facebook and twitter. The drawback, however, to the use of new media is that an inactive twitter feed is counterproductive to the ultimate aims of increasing web traffic.

Both the Pritzker Military Library and the Swedish American Museum are great examples of the effective use of twitter. Not only are both feeds updated multiple times a day, but the tweets aren’t limited to links back to the website. The Pritzker twitter feed links to relevant articles about military history, offers up interest historical facts, and interacts with other twitter users rather than solely tweeting out information.  The Swedish American Museum feed often links users to exhibitions at the museum, but it points out interest cultural events germane to people of Swedish ancestry. This is a particularly effective way to increase traffic to the site and the actual museum. Cohen and Rosenzweig stress that an effective site bridges connections between the various communities that might be interested in the services of the museum.  Both sites skillfully market their holdings to interest as many different communities as possible.

Unfortunately, not all organizations fully embrace the power of new media. The Newberry Library uses twitter and blogs on their site, but neither appears to be particularly active. The twitter feed has one update posted in 2012. The previous tweet dates back to October 2011. For an archive as large as the Newberry, one would think they could update this more frequently. Similarly, the Center for Renaissance Studies has recently started a blog, though it only has two posts. This appears to be a recent addition for the Center, so it remains to be seen how effective this new media will be.

The Edgewater Historical Society employs no use of new media. For a smaller, more localized historical center, one must question how effective this site is in drawing interest. I would suspect that the absence of widespread marketing makes it difficult for the society to generate interest unless an individual is already familiar with the organization and its programs.


Ultimately, there’s no one way to design a website, but there are certainly some things that are more effective than others. For starters, if one of the main draws for your organization is exhibits and events, be sure to display these prominently, and make sure it’s easy for the user to access additional information.  Second, if you’re website caters to a small audience, be sure to develop a presence in social media to try and broaden the communities interested in your services.  Finally, make an effort to adopt a modern appearance to your website based on emergent technologies.  While the Edgewater Historical Society might offer strong services, the antiquated website sends the wrong message to its users.

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