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The Web and Us

Historical institutions are changing, as the electronic age progresses. One way is in how we communicate with our members and others. Web pages on the Internet reach a different bunch of people than those who attend our programs (who are different than those who get their local history just through books.) Societies serious about wanting to reach out to new members have a great opportunity in the WWW. Those who rarely visit, let alone join, associations now--kids and young adults--are more willing to explore history while sitting at a computer.

The Internet shall restructure society. Museums, living history, and historic preservation projects will not be affected so fundamentally as historical society meetings. The Web, siphoning off people who don't care to go out, will leave societies ever more social clubs.

Historical information will be easier to access and analyze. Not only will people not attending historical programs be able to benefit from on-line transcriptions of talks but many different histories of the same area will be easily consultable and instantly comparable with each other.

History on the Internet contains inaccuracies--just as printed history material does. But with the Web, readers can easily look at other sources, automatically hopping from document to related document. Even if an author does not link to differing opinions himself, readers can use free searching tools to find other Web-pages on the same subject. Those publishing history via the WWW cannot escape others correcting their errors.

Plenty of bad history has sold widely in books. Other writers have corrected the mistakes but those corrections are in no way tied to the original documents. Publishing corrections does not kill off historical myths. Once people come across the myth itself again, they forget the correction.

With hypertext, historians interested in eradicating misinformation can point right to the offending document without violating its copyright. Of course the material has to be on the Internet, and people have to look to your historical group's Web-site for the true facts. If local historical organizations start posting useful historical material on the Web now, that eventually will be recognized.

Do people want to find local history on the Web? Several thousand people took the effort to subscribe to a free electronic national historial newsletter. From their e-mail names, most seem to be teenagers. Few or none of these people are going to pay dues to join any of our societies. But how often do any of us have access to thousands of teenagers (let alone thousands of people) clamoring for some history? For those of us interested in disseminating info and nuturing an early interest in local history, the Internet is ideal.

Are you satisfied with the amount of feedback you get from your historical association members? After only three electronic newsletters, more feedback has already come in than from years of writing and being an officer in local societies. And these are strangers contacting me.

E-mail is a useful tool for historical groups these days. It is a means to collect lots of information. It is as quick as telephoning but the other person does not have to be home when you call. Societies can even send and receive free e-mail if none of its officers are on-line or even have computers. [Ask me.] I have received offers from people far away to trade info on historical topics of mutual interest. That has happened to me in person and through the mail, too, but it can never happen enough.

There are only three dozen free Web-pages for those readers to look over in that on-line history club. Now is our chance to capture the interest of all these potential donors to our historical organizations. We have to show them that local history is not just a bunch of old people who do not welcome new blood. Writing a Web-page does not require anything more than the willingness to write an interesting essay. [Ask me.]

Some societies do not wish to stick anything up on the Internet because then non-members can read it for free. How much does your institution spend now on free hand-outs? If people found the same info on the WWW, your organization would actually save money. Will people join your group then? We now have members who never attend but pay dues simply to support us. This all does hinge on the public supporting us voluntarily, as with PBS. But history is going up on the Web in any case. It is to our benefit to be the ones behind it.


This was written in February, 1999, for a different medium. Sticking it here is preaching to the choir, I realize. Feel free to scavange any lines out of it for use elsewhere.
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Web-published 19th October, 1999