Spring Break is coming and while I’d love to go to Austin, TX or some other temperate location (that doesn’t tacitly perpetuate colonialism re: every destination in the Caribbean [sorry to ruin your vacations people who are going on cruises...]), I don’t have any frequent flyer miles so I am limited to driving-distance destinations. And what is within driving distance of Chicago, IL? Why, the charming coastal town of Saugatuck, Michigan of course!
Over the past three days, I’ve been searching for a bed and breakfast that will serve as a weekend getaway. It’s been a little hard to find a stand out place, and a lot of it has to do with the branding of these places and their websites. Which place would you feel better about giving your credit card information to, over the web: the place with a modern, easily navigable site or the guys who just have a PO Box and a flash animation slide show?
It’s quite coincidental that this B&B search happened during the week that I was supposed to be looking at several cultural institutions’ websites and writing a blog post about the good, bad and ugly aspects of them for Digital Media class. As a digital native, my perception of ‘legitimacy’ was definitely affected by the quality of these businesses’ websites. And having examined several local and regional historical societies’ websites, I can say that my prejudice applied to them as well.
I tried to find some smaller places that might not necessarily have big operating budgets or IT staffs. I wanted to see what folks had done in the DIY vein of things. After an extensive search*, I selected 3 sites and I will provide some commentary about each one.
(*extensive in internet terms, so that means roughly 4 different searches in google.)
“The Hottie”: Northern Indiana Center for History
Whoa! Snazzy! This is just what a 21st century girl expects when she clicks on a website. Drop-down menus, color images, all those little twitter and facebook “share” links. It’s all there. But this site is not all good looks, there’s content too! Two features that I want to highlight are:
- Their comprehensive articles on St Joseph County history, Indiana History and Oliver Family history (whose house, Copshaholm, is now a historic mansion attached to the NICFH complex, AND an iphone app!).
- They not only list their current exhibits, but they also have an index of past exhibits. I think that is a great resource.
This site felt modern, easily-navigable and full of useful content. The appearance and the resources together make this a great example of a website for a regional historical society that has kept up with standards of the web.
“Yeah, but she has a great personality.”: Monroe County History Center
I feel guilty about criticizing this organization’s website, because this organization is actually where I got my Public History sea legs, and I really do love it with all my heart and soul, because it really is an amazing place. But no matter how much the MCHC changed my life, it doesn’t excuse this eyesore of a website.
HTML much? (*snickers, pushes glasses up nose) It’s just a bunch of links and text and images kind of scattered on the front page. Not to say that image is everything but it just seems like a…well, like a small-town historical society that is stuck in the past! There are links that say “NEW” but when I look at this site I kind of wonder…how new? When I see outdated interfaces like this, I wonder if the organizations are even still operating.
Now, looks aren’t everything but this site doesn’t have much content either. They have some interactive online games and tours, but on the tour I could only get two of the objects to work. They do have some searchable databases, specifically related to their Genealogy Library holdings, which is a great resource for genealogists and researchers. Users can search an online catalog of books, the photograph collection (which is quite extensive), print materials in the library, and then it links to the Monroe County records and the Indiana State records. It’s not the most convenient interface, but it’s useful and I appreciate that.
I think the reason this old-style website is so alarming to me is that with sites like wordpress or blogger, an organization like the MCHC could easily make a more professional-looking website at little or no cost. They could have a link to their catalog and collections search site but users would be greeted with a much more modern and familiar web interface.
(Sorry again MCHC, I think you’re great except for your website.)
“I’ve never seen anything like it!”: The Morgan County Historical Society
Unlike the previous two examples, I have no affiliation whatsoever with this organization. It is in Morgan, Utah and upon first glance, it looks like a pretty nice site. It’s got the classy historical aesthetic to it (with the longhand font at the top and the sepia photo banner). It’s got loads of content: photos, histories, archive holdings, landmarks…
But my favorite thing is something that I have never seen before.
“Take an interactive tour of many historic sites and photos of early Morgan County,” said the website.
“Well, gee..ok!” I replied.
I clicked the link and was taken here, to an interactive map. There are a good 50 pinpoints on the map, and each one is linked to a pop-up window with a historic photo or a historic fact. The map covers what looks like almost the whole county! This is so cool! Holy Smokes! I like how it is so expansive. The map doesn’t purport to be a 3-D tour, it is a way to explore the whole county from one spot. It also puts the entire county’s history into perspective, which again…is just great.
I really like this innovation.
So there you have it. Some ins and outs of historical society websites, along with my (always and undoubtedly) enlightening, entertaining, genuine commentary. We can see that aesthetics and content both matter, and a little innovation never hurt anyone either.
Despite the advice to “not judge a book by its cover,” in critiquing these three websites I was alerted to value judgements that I make based only on the modernity and appearance of websites. The internet is where many people have their first encounters with organizations and first impressions linger. Creating an online presence as an organization is and will continue to be an important task for defining an institutional image and reaching a broader audience.