This week, I learned about the art of reviewing digital history projects. For this exercise, I chose to compare the websites “Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery”, created by New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the New York Historical Society’s “Slavery in New York.” As far as websites go, they are both on the older side, with the former created in 2004 and the latter created in 2005. Additionally, both of these are digital exhibitions, consisting of descriptive text and documentary images.
In terms of media and design, it is worth noting that neither site has aged well: they both use Adobe Flash. As a consequence, most documents and images these sites display are pixelated and unclear. In this sense, the “Slavery in New York” website has an advantage over “Lest We Forget,” as the latter runs entirely on Flash, whilst the former only uses it for only its “Galleries” portion. “Lest We Forget” does not perform well regarding visual appeal or accessibility, either. The exhibition does not even use the entire screen, and feels like you are reading a small colorful rectangle inside a larger, grey rectangle. Text is also very small and pixelated, confined within scrollable textboxes that are frequently too small to be read with ease. In contrast, the “Slavery in New York” website uses a larger, thicker, more readable font and utilizes much more of its available space, letting you scroll through the page itself rather than a tiny textbox. And even where there is blank space, the site uses a background image of a historical painting of New York streets to make it feel full. Finally, both suffer from issues of organization and clarity for the user, albeit in different ways. The “Lest We Forget” site embraces its digital format, in that the exhibits are organized thematically, rather than in any particular order, allowing people to explore based on their personal interests. However, from the home page, the site’s navigability is not clear for a first-time visitor. The different exhibits are marked by images (mainly of faces) that only show clear labels if you move your cursor over them. And if you click on them, you are taken only to the front page of the exhibit; you would have to notice the word “more” in small print at the bottom of the textbox to see the full exhibit. “Slavery in New York” is much more navigable in that it has clearly bolded headings on the left side of screen, such as “Tour Galleries”, “About the Exhibit”, and “Education”. However, many of those headings have sub-topic headings that are not always intuitive and one only discovers by clicking on them; for example, a page titled “History of Slavery in New York” (something that might best be placed before people visit the actual “Galleries”) is found under “About the Exhibit”, while the scholarly source bibliography is located under “Education”. If one goes to the actual “Galleries” page, the organization is mostly intuitive: every gallery has a main feature at the top, a “Gallery Overview” at the bottom, a collection of “New York Stories” for further reading, plus some form of semi-interactive image. There is also a clear presentational order, with every gallery numbered 1-9 at the top, but this does have the drawback of taking away the visitor’s ability to explore the galleries they want based off thematic interest.
As for content and audience, both sites are intended for public audiences, though I would argue “Slavery in New York” does a better job of catering to them. The purpose of “Lest We Forget” is made very clear in its home page: the site is in commemoration of the UN declaring 2004 the “international year to commemorate the struggle against slavery and its abolition” and seeks to, in a sense, bring to the surface the nuances of the experiences of those who were enslaved. Judging by both its broad reference to different forms of slavery in the Americas, and its option to select between 4 different reading languages, this site is clearly intended for a diverse, Pan-American audience. However, in regard to descriptive text, the site tries to make both broad statements and be scholarly and nuanced at the same time, which at some times can result in what the site says to be vague and awkward for someone unfamiliar with the topic. In contrast, the “Slavery in New York” website is clearly intended to advertise a physical exhibit the New York Historical Society created, and as such, is mainly intended for New Yorkers. With all the links, PDFs, and other educational resources the site provides, it hopes to spread its basic message—that New York was shaped by an at times paradoxical interplay between slavery and abolitionism—to educators, parents, and students. Because it does not attempt to be overly broad, “Slavery in New York” does a good job of providing just enough descriptive detail to go with every image or subject without bogging the reader down.