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(Self) Evaluation of the AotW site

30 January 2004 - 'Internet Scout' format

Antietam on the Web (AotW) has been alive since 1997. Except for a hibernation period 2001-02, it has steadily grown and matured in quality and scope. To evaluate where we are, and to help set priorities for continuing growth and improvement, we have made this (hopefully) objective evaluation of the quality and validity of the site from the point of view of an academic or educational professional user.

If you have comments or suggestions of your own about the site, or want to tell us what you think of this evaluation, please contact us at any time - we are much more interested in your opinion than our own.

Site History & Background

AotW was first built of static HTML pages, each created by hand, a process which necessarily limited the rate at which new information could be added, and the limited our ability to cross-reference information between pages. It was also hosted on free servers at GeoCities, which was affordable, but offered very few server-side options for scripts or database interactivity. Our host soon added distracting advertisements and limited the number of visitor per hour, too, which was not ideal.

In mid-2003 we migrated the site to a new server, which provides much greater flexibility and "bandwidth". We completely re-tooled, using active scripting (php) with a fairly sophisticated database (mySQL), standardized templates with a streamlined look, feel, and navigation, and new interactive features to encourage community participation.

The site will never be entirely complete, but it has become a significant resource on the Battle, and is also growing as the hub of a community of interested persons contributing to the knowledge, documentation, and dissemination of the Maryland Campaign of 1862.

This self-evaluation of AotW follows the format of the selection criteria* used by the venerable Internet Scout Project, a highly-respected group which has been reviewing top sites since 1994. The section headings and text in italics are theirs.



Site Name: Antietam on the Web
URL: http://aotw.org/
Review date: 30 January 2004

Content

When evaluating websites, we are concerned primarily with high-quality content. To evaluate the quality of a site's content, we ask these questions:

» What is the scope of the content?
AotW attempts a comprehensive presentation of the American Civil War battle at Antietam. At the time of this evaluation, 'comprehensive' means we have:

We term this an 'attempt' at comprehensive because there is a long way to go. Main weaknesses at present are: lack of detail for some individuals and units, only 2 of the 12 planned detail maps are complete and they lack narratives, and about 20 (of the nearly 300) Official Reports remain to be transcribed. Our wish list is long and growing, also - there are a number of exhibits and projects in the wings - so there are challenges aplenty ahead for the membership.

» Who is the intended audience?
We intend AotW to be a general interest site, for a wide range of non-specialist readers. We don't want to be too academic in tone, nor do we want to require specific military or historical knowledge. We know, from email and other feedback, and from access log statistics, that many of our readers are students and others people from educational institutions (K - 12, college). Other notable interest groups are reenactors and American Civil War enthusiasts outside of academia, and individuals engaged in family genealogy research. We also get occasional requests from journalists and other media persons looking for background on the battle.

» What is its purpose?
Originally, AotW was a personal project to use hyperlinking and html to help gather and organize, and show relationships in, the masses of available information about the Battle. It has grown and evolved since then, but the primary purpose is still to present a lot of information in a useful way and explore relationships between people, places, and events. Actually, we'd like to be the "one-stop-shop" for everything Antietam. A secondary, and more recent goal is to create (or at least "enable" or "facilitate") an active community of interested people who have something to add to our understanding of the Campaign, or have an interest in researching and presenting the story.

» Is it up to date?
The battle occurred in September 1862, so there are not going to be many breaking stories about the action, but there are current events and news related to the battle and the battlefield, which we track on our News & Events page.

We do make it a point to keep up with the latest scholarship and traditionally published works on the battle, as well as the other organizations and individuals working in the field on the Web. We cite these materials, as we use them, as references, and post significant works on our Sources page.

» Is it accurate (as far as we can determine)?
This might be a good place for a disclaimer: accuracy in History is at best an indistinct term. We present factual materials as best we can, relying on good primary sources and corroborating independently as much as possible. It's not always possible. Even if we did this perfectly, and could verify every fact we publish, we would still be facing the fundamental ambiguity that is inherent in the study and presentation of history: these facts contradict each other or contain significant gaps, eyewitnesses disagree and sometimes their personal biases intrude.

At AotW, we know our limitations, and try not to be too dogmatic about our interpretation. We do not stray very far from the consensus of mainstream historians of the past 50 years or so, at least not without particularly interesting evidence. Ours is a largely conventional view, though with a huge advantage over traditional publications and media: we can provide immense depth of detail for the viewer to explore as they wish, without having to compromise for 'story clarity' or simplicity of presentation. The best of both worlds.

To get back to the original question about accuracy: we make a conscious effort not to make unsubstantiated statements or draw unreasonable conclusions, and we believe we make good choices in picking sources and deciding what to present or not present on the site. We are cognizant of the responsibility of publishing official-looking material on the Web: we are taken seriously by our readers, and we mean to live up to their expectations of accuracy and authenticity, as well as our own internal standards.

Authority

The Web is a peculiarly democratic medium, allowing many people to make information available to the world. We at Internet Scout support the involvement of as broad a constituency as possible, but we also try to ascertain the authority of website creators within the subject area. Questions we consider include:

» Who is the author (this is crucial, in that we rarely select anonymous pages)?
The bulk of the material has been assembled, written, and/or edited by Brian Downey, an amateur historian of some 25 years experience with the battle, a lifetime of study of the American Civil War in general, and a perpetual (part-time) undergrad history major. Since inception, the site has also received material assistance from a large number of individuals with skills in the subject. Beginning in July 2003, AotW began soliciting contributing members - hugely expanding the potential scope and reach of AotW. There are no formal qualifications for membership, nor are members' credentials necessarily known, but material contributed by members is subject to guidelines and review for quality.

» Is the author likely to be authoritative (as far as we can tell)?
Considering Mr Downey's amateur standing, that most Contributing Members wish anonymity when published, and that we are not a Major University, Foundation, or Government Agency, qualifications of the authors will not be sufficient for a viewer to determine the validity of the information presented by AotW.

As an alternative, then, a viewer should examine the content of the site to determine authenticity. To show that what we publish on AotW is reliable, we generally document, in context, the primary and secondary materials we use in our research. When presenting 'factual' pieces, such as biographies, unit summaries, and maps, for example, we cite our sources directly on the page in question - in hyperlinks to online sources and/or in bibliographic references. Some text on the site, particularly that written before 1999, has not been well documented, but is supported by the standard sources, which are listed in the 'Sources' section of the site. General articles, analyses, and reference information have reference works cited only when they are not already listed in 'Sources'.

Overall AotW does not meet rigorous academic citation standards, however. We are planning to implement a system of hyperlinked footnotes across the site in the future, but this will require extensive data retrofitting, and is not something we are likely to be able to do quickly.

Information maintenance

This criterion relates to content in the crucial category of whether the site is "alive"; that is, whether it is maintained/updated on a regular basis. Sites don't necessarily have to be kept up to date if they are clearly labeled as archive sites. However, if we look at a site that hasn't been touched in a year and it isn't specifically designated an archive, we are not likely to select it for inclusion.

AotW is a vibrant, living, growing, active site. It is not meant to be static information or an archive. We are constantly adding and updating. With a growing membership, we ought to be able to keep this up for years to come. Earlier this month (Jan 2004) we built an automated tracker to post each addition and update to the site, so now an interested viewer can see a running history. Also, much of the material on the home page of the site is topical or transitory in nature and is frequently refreshed.

Presentation

As browser and HTML advances allow greater flexibility in the creation of web pages, we evaluate sites on the basis of utilitarian concerns; while flashy design is not necessarily a drawback, users must be able to make effective use of the site. Questions we consider include:

» How is the site organized?
The site is functionally divided into 6 major sections (Overview, Maps, Participants, Reports, Exhibits, and Sources). This structure is provided mainly to make the site more comfortable for first-time visitors. There is so much cross-linking available between the various types of information on the site, that its organization can better be described as a spider web than as a simple organization chart. For all users, however, the home (index) page is the entry portal to the site, with links to each of the main sections and pointers to the current exhibits and news items, as well as FAQ, Search, About the Site, Contact and similar services. There is also information for prospective Members, and access to Member and Administrator tools for users who have logged-in.

» Is it easy to navigate?
We think so. For the new user, a row of simple text links provide quick entry to particular sections for fundamental information about the battle and starting points for digging into the details. People more familiar with the site most often chase information by linking from a search page to an individual, to a unit, to a weapon, a detail map, an official report, etc. These users navigate by "pulling the string" - using links within the site to find related information - but, because the fundamental section links are presented on just about every page, an overwhelmed reader can always get back home, or to a top-level section with just one click.

» Does it depend on graphics, and if so does the provider maintain a separate, text-only version?
The site does not depend on graphics for any navigation. We do not offer a text-only version - the fundamental information delivered by AotW is nearly all in text (html) format. Exceptions are displays of maps and period photographs - graphic information which obviously cannot be replicated in text. For accessibility purposes, graphics (decorative or display) are annotated with alternate text labels, and hyperlinks found within maps are duplicated in plain text elsewhere on each map page.

» Will the pages take an inordinately long time to load on machines with slow connections?
Most, no. Some, yes. Most pages are essentially plain text/html and will load quickly, but there are exceptions. The home page contains a slide show presentation which is a large file, but there is a "loading" graphic provided, so the rest of the page will load very quickly, and be ready to use, even while the show loads. The Faces page, a browsable gallery of all of the portrait photographs we have, may take a very long time for a dial-up user, but is not central to the operation of the site.

» Do users need specific helper applications to take full advantage of the site (we inform readers of such requirements)?
The user will need the Macromedia Flash player to see the slide show on the home page. There is an alternate graphic to replace the show for users who do not wish to use Flash, so the page will not "break". No other plug-ins or special tools are required to use the site.

» Does the site deliver content in a well organized fashion?
Yes. The top-level, visual organization of the site is designed to get the users to specific information they seek as efficiently as possible, and is traditionally hierarchical. Below this level, however, the site is highly interactive in that most pages are presented in response to specific user requests from searches or hyperlinks - this is not static, linear organization, but more of a complex, shifting, hub-and-spoke structure - a highly effective way to deliver specialized and detailed information.

» Is the site pleasant to look at, stylistically and graphically?
Yes, very! We think it's a very clean, easy to read, and (therefore) easy to use site. We paid particular attention to creating a cohesive look and feel which ties the whole site together stylistically, and provides a consistent interface for viewers throughout. We have avoided distracting moving graphics, confusing backgrounds, odd fonts and colors, and crowded pages in favor of clear communication as much as possible. We subscribe to the "less is more" school of design. We have included appropriate graphics and illustrations to keep it interesting and to present more information, but not so many as to be too busy.

Availability

This may seem trivial, but it is important to check links at a site randomly. If some or most of them don't work, we won't select the site for inclusion. It is crucial that the links at the site (not to mention the site itself) can be reached. We check the main page of each site for availability at least three times in the days before the Scout Report is released.

AotW has been highly reliable at it's current server location, with no reported outages since relocating here in May 2003. We also check the more than 5,000 internal and external hyperlinks on the site quarterly (or more often) with a link checking tool called Xenu Link Sleuth. However, there may be outages from time to time around the internet or our server, and sites to which we link do go "off the air" at an alarming rate, but we're taking precautions to catch these.

Cost

We have no set policy on this, but we take a very critical look at for-fee sites, because payment requirements tend to discriminate against many would-be users, especially those in education.

There is no cost to use AotW or participate as a Contributing Member. There is no plan to _ever_ make it a fee-based site.

*Internet Scout rating format used above is
[Copyright 1994-2003 Internet Scout Project - http://scout.wisc.edu The Internet Scout Project, located in the Computer Sciences Department at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, provides Internet publications and software to the research and education communities under grants from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, and other philanthropic organizations. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of any of our publications or web content provided this paragraph, including the above copyright notice, is preserved on all copies.]