Print Project: Exploring User Interfaces Using the Wayback Machine

As someone who has done a lot of work in communications and marketing at historical organizations, I am very interested in how institutions present themselves to the world at large. One of the most accessible ways organizations can create a public presence is through the internet and their website.

A friend in my capstone class is using the Wayback Machine to do some really interesting research on how conspiracy theories spread via the internet. This has introduced me to how useful this tool could be to people in the humanities, and I assume that as we move further into the future and more things on the internet become “historical” (whatever that means), the Wayback Machine will become just as synonymous in the historian’s toolkit as searching in a physical database. That all being said, I want to use this fascinating tool to learn more about my own personal interests–historic organizations’ digital presence.

I want to know how these institutions’ webpages and digital content has changed over time, and compare their effectiveness against readings we’ve done about successful user interfaces, while also engaging with the historiography about various institutions and changes in museum technology (some of which I am already familiar with because of what I am researching for my own capstone project).

As the Smithsonian has an extensive institutional archive, as well as a lot written about it from a historiographical perspective, I will certainly include that in my organizations that I research. I also want to look at the White House Historical Association, as I currently intern there and part of my duties are putting up digital content, so I very familiar with its current website–and am interested in how it has changed over the years. Both of these institutions have internet presences starting in the late 90s, according to the Wayback Machine. I also want to look at one more, smaller institution, as I want to see the role funding plays in how an organization is represented digitally. I’m not sure yet which I will use, I am open to suggestions! Do smaller organizations with presumably less funding have a more stagnant, less user friendly website? I also want to look at how much content each site is offering. The internet is a way to expand an organizations reach, and make their content more accessible. I want to see how these various institutions have taken advantage of this since they first created their websites in the 90s.

This project will serve to shed light on how effectively historical organizations, big and small, are using the internet to promote themselves and their content. It is important to study how these various institutions present themselves to the public, and I would be interested to add their digital personas to that understanding.   

2 Replies to “Print Project: Exploring User Interfaces Using the Wayback Machine”

  1. This is a super interesting topic! Sean’s post about the old HistoryWired site surprised me because of how bad the UI was, considering that it was a digital exhibit created for the Smithsonian, which, institutionally, is basically as prestigious as it gets. At the risk of taking a bit of a presentist view of things, I feel like a lot of digital interfaces that now seem astonishingly unfriendly and completely perplexing were once at the vanguard of good web design.

    For your question of a small house museum—which I think has the potential to be a really illuminating source for comparison—I went ahead and checked out old versions of the site for the Heurich House Museum, where I work. The oldest snapshot on the Wayback Machine is 15 years old, and it’s really interesting to compare it to the modern site. I’m not sure that it’s the best example for your purposes, but that’s one you can check out, if you’re looking!

  2. This is a really great idea! We are at the point where there is indeed enough history of change and development of websites for organizations that it makes sense to look at them through a historical lens.

    The WayBack machine is a great mode to get at some of this content. With that noted, if you were to look at Smithsonian’s web presence over time it would also be great to look at Smithsonian’s Archive-It Account. https://archive-it.org/organizations/660 Archive-It is a tool that the Internet Archive sells to cultural heritage institutions to build their own web archive collections, so you can use that as another way to explore archived SI sites. What’s great about their Archive-It account is they have metadata records for their sites too, so you can get ideas about sites to look at that you might not have known were even SI sites before. This whole collection of retired websites is super interesting https://archive-it.org/collections/9142 Beyond that, the Library of Congress also has some smithsonian sites archived, for example the Anacostia Community Museum site https://www.loc.gov/item/lcwa00095964/ (The Library of Congress has copies of it’s own site going back all the way to 1997! https://www.loc.gov/item/lcwaN0003464/

    If you did go this route, it would be great to contextualize your approach to sites over time in work on website design over time. It would be ideal to approach these kinds of sites in the context of design thinking at the time of their creation. For that there are a lot of technical books on web design that could be useful.

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