History 697 | History & New Media | Paula Petrik | George Mason University



This course is designed as an intensive exploration of the adaptation of history to a digital environment. Although the central goal of the course is development of an original, digital history project of professional quality, the course will also examine “best practices” in digital history, the problems and possibilities inherent in digital history, and issues in information, technical, and aesthetic design. In particular, the course will tackle the problems of creating interactivity and community. Be aware that this class is both a history and media course. In other words, we will begin by thinking (and writing) about good history and then proceed to learning the tools and techniques to bring history into digital form. Be also mindful that any digital work is a collaborative venture, so be prepared to both aid others and ask for help for yourself.


The texts (of one kind or another) serve three purposes: 1) to provide you with the background in several areas that might be relatively unfamiliar to historians; 2) to introduce you to some texts that are intended to promote some “left brain” thinking or provide inspiration; and 3) to furnish you with a modest technical, reference library. We will discuss some of the books briefly, some in depth, and some not at all, but they all should be read either in toto or in small bites. In addition, you are required to obtain a copy of the game, Myst: Revelation. Except Myst (which can be obtained at a reasonable cost from an on-line vendor or as a demo download), all the books are available at the campus bookstore.


Blogs have become an important element on the web and something that you’ve already done in Clio Wired. Rather than have a group blog or design a blog from the ground up, you’ll be doing something a bit different. Because you’ll need a blog that has a photo album, I’ll recommend two options. (Why not one of the free services? Because I have experienced enormous problems with downtime, trolls, and spam in previous semesters.)

You can obtain a Plus-level subscription to Typepad, a blog. The cost is $8.95 per month or roughly $27.00 for the semester (the cost of a modest textbook). The best thing to do is sign up for a free trial; this will furnish you with a month’s free service. At the end of the semester, you can cancel your subscription. Or, you may discover that you like blogging so much that you retain your subscription. The advantages of TypePad are ease of use and the option to customize your design.

Alternatively, you can use Movable Type or WordPress software. Both are free, but the installation of the software is challenging, and you will need to contact your ISP to ensure that the necessary software is in place. Movable Type will install the application for you for a $40.00 fee, but you will need to arrange to have CGI and MySQL in place. Be aware that most free web page areas do not support CGI or MySQL or charge extra. George Mason does have a site license for Movable Type, but the university’s policy on who can install MT and WordPress and what servers are eligible is unclear. I do not recommend either of these options unless you have some solid computer skills and access to a sophisticated ISP, but there may some in the class who can avail themselves of the MT or WordPress options.

software & internet browsers

Because this course will introduce you to standards-based, accessible design, you will need several browsers to test your web work. This, of course, brings me to the good news and the bad news. Standards-based design is, on the whole, much more tractable than its predecessor, convoluted table-based design. The XHTML code is much easier to write and cleaner. The bad news is that Internet browsers carry the baggage of the Browser Wars and, as result, interpret CSS, the web presentation language, in a number of different ways. What to do?

You should download or obtain the several different browsers. Mac people should acquire Safari (latest version), Explorer 5.2, and Firefox 1.5. Wintel folk should obtain a copy of IE 6.0 and Firefox 1.5. Opera is also good and available for free. If you elect to use Firefox, there is a handy plugin, Web Developer Tools, that provides a means to look at your CSS in different ways. Mac users face a particular difficulty. Mr. Softie has discontinued IE for the Mac, so it will remain frozen at 5.2. But 85 percent of the world uses some flavor of IE for Windows. For Mac users there is BrowserCam ($), a friend’s PC, or an email to a classmate requesting a site check. Wintel people face a different problem: their dominant browser is not standards-compliant. Should they focus entirely on IE, they will develop some poor habits. In the end, the best practice for historians working on the web is to design and preview on a standards-compliant browser and correct for the IE family; for our purposes this means using Firefox, Safari, or Opera as our primary browser.

Since we will be working extensively with CSS, you might also find a dedicated CSS editor handy. StyleMaster, a cross-platform product from WestCiv, is a good bet. CSSEdit for the Mac is also intuitive and easy to use. There are undoubtedly other CSS editors available for Wintel folks.