Doing History on the Web: New Site Launched
AHA Staff, March 2000
DoHistory.org, a new web site for historians, teachers, and to all interested in history was launched on February 4, 2000, by the Harvard Film Study Center. Funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maine Humanities Council, and the Virginia Wellington Cabot Foundation, the site provides visitors an interactive experience of reconstructing the life and world of an ordinary person in the past. Using the diary of Martha Ballard, the 18th-century midwife and healer whose life was the basis for Laurel Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize-winning book (and the PBS film), A Midwife's Tale, as the raw material, the web site takes visitors into the process of doing history and also provides them with a practical set of guides to help them launch their own history projects.
The web site offers thousands of downloadable pages of original documents including diaries, letters, maps, court records, account books, and medical texts. Of particular interest to social historians is the searchable electronic text of the entire 27-year diary of Martha Ballard.
Unlike many popular history web sites that offer limited guidance, the DoHistory site guides users through the research process, engaging them interactively with documents and artifacts from the past. Users get to learn some of the techniques and skills required to do history by following the author of A Midwife's Tale, Harvard University Professor Laurel Ulrich. Users also get to follow the film's producer and writer to find out how the book was translated onto the screen.
The launch of the DoHistory web site gives a new impetus to the growing upsurge of interest in popular history,—especially family history. The expansion of the Internet, and growing access to rich historical sources such as the American Memory section of the Library of Congress web site has made it possible for nonprofessionals to attempt their own reconstructions of the past.
An example of this new interest (and one which can be expected to further develop the popular craving for history) is the recent launch of the "My History is America's History" program by the National Endowment for the Humanities (details at http://www.myhistory.org). This program will probably take more people into fascinating historical inquiries, perhaps to discover that history can be fun even when taken seriously.