Building a Web Site for the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade
By Peter J. Kastor
Some General Thoughts
How will you use this site? Are you providing an electronic version
of an existing syllabus, a launching point for materials that you will
use in conjunction with your existing course, or are you rebuilding a class
from the ground up? These matter primarily when you consider how long you
will need to prepare the site. An electronic version of an existing site
can be up and running within a few days. It is also a good way to get familiar
with HTML and with the particular network setup at your institution. As
soon as you include additional material (usually images or supplementary
text), the time requirement increases dramatically. For a class in the
fall, you should allow the entire summer to prepare the Web site. Finally,
a site that forms the cornerstone of a reconceived course is considerably
more challenging, both in terms of technology and time. It is best to begin
work on these projects a year before using them.
How will your students use this site? It is easy (and dangerous)
to assume that undergraduates feel at home on the internet. Many do, but
it is still the case that a large number of undergraduates have no extensive
computing experience. Even those who consider themselves "comfortable"
on a computer, with hours of time in high school and college, still have
a limited range of skills. Some of the best electronic projects are undone
by their own sophistication, usually because they require skills that students
do not have. Every Web project requires some kind of orientation
for students. For the most basic Web sites, this can be a quick discussion
at the beginning of class. For anything more complicated, however, it is
essential to make certain that students have an opportunity to learn how
the site works.
Who will have access to your site? This is a matter of personal
pride, not to mention the law of intellectual property and copyright. Most
people who prepare educational material for the World Wide Web choose to
make their material accessible on an unlimited basis. This is especially
important if this is the first site you've built. You may feel comfortable
using it with your students, but you may want to keep it away from colleagues
outside your institution. In addition, some students are uncomfortable
having their work available to the rest of the work. If you include student
projects in your site, you may wish to make restrict access to particular
Things to Consider Before You Build Your Site
Contact the System Administrator. If you have not worked on your
institution's network before, it is essential to contact the people who
maintain that network. You should ask them about the following issues:
Consider the Source of Your Material.
Storage. Every institution has a different policy regarding how
much material an individual or organization can store on the institution's
network. Textual information rarely causes a problem. As soon as you begin
using still images, sound, or video, however, you can quickly run into
problems. This is especially the case at institutions which automatically
refuse to store additional material once you have exceeded a certain storage
On-Campus Access. Does your institution have readily accessible
computer labs? Are all of them equipped with a Web browser? Most colleges
and universities have these labs, but their availability varies dramatically.
Even more unpredictable are the kind of computers in those labs. You may
have a new machine capable of running the most sophisticated Web pages,
but your students may have to work on machines which can do a lot less.
Older computers also require considerably more time to process and show
Web files. This is especially important when considering how many images
to use. Likewise, it is important to learn about the multimedia capability
of on-campus computers. Many universities have chosen not to have
sound capacity in their on-campus computers, primarily to save money and
to limit noise in the labs. If you do want to make use of sound of video,
it will be important to learn where--or even if--your students will be
able to use those files on-campus.
Off-Campus Access. This matter involves both your institution and
your students. Does your institution have a reliable dial-in network? At
some schools (UVa included), the demand for modem access has exceeded the
institution's resources. As a result, students often have difficulty even
connecting to the system. Once they are on-line, you then face other questions
that can only be answered by surveying your students. You will need to
find out how many of them have home computers, modems, and internet access.
You will also need to learn how fast those modems transmit and how fast
those computers can think. This information is critical as you decide what
sort of information you want to distribute.
Institutional Support. Does your institution have a multimedia lab
or any other support facility for faculty who want to use electronic materials
in their courses? Increasingly, the answer is "yes." At only a few places
will the answer be "no." Between these two extremes are a large number
of institutions where technical support is tucked away in unfamiliar corners.
Often it resides in departments that are unfamiliar to people studying
the slave trade. Engineering, environmental science, natural science, and
obviously computer science departments are often the home to impressive
amounts of equipment and support.
Copyright. The internet remains a nebulous realm when it comes to
copyright, but some general rules do apply. Most of the same provisions
governing printed material apply to the internet. Placing any material
on-line without restriction constitutes "publishing." As a result, placing
scanned material on-line without permission constitutes copyright infringement.
Universities benefit from fair use provisions, however, and there are various
ways to keep a site safe and legal. The best way is obviously to use material
with permission. Most large public institutions-- including the Library
of Congress, the National Archives, and many university libraries--allow
people to use their electronic materials for educational purposes without
any prior agreement. Scanning material from a published source, on the
other hand, is far more complicated. In those cases, fair use protects
materials on-line for a limited amount of time with limited access. The
best way to protect yourself from a legal standpoint is to place material
on-line for the duration of a course and restrict access to people within
Reliability. You should apply the same rules of provenance to electronic
materials that you would apply to printed documents. Do the materials come
from a reliable source? Unfortunately, this is more easily said than done
on the Web. A respected professor at a prestigious university might well
use materials that he got from another sources. This is neither illegal
nor unethical, but it does make establishing the provenance all the more
difficult. The best place to start is with the original owner. Fortunately,
some of the largest document collections, both public and private, have
begun to put their materials on line. Many of these will also scan materials
by request in much the same way theywould send a photograph or photocopy.
Equipment. Creating materials for the World Wide Web actually does
notrequire a lot of computer equipment. You can create documents
on any word processor, and most new computers can handle the software necessary
to work with images. How much equipment you need will depend on how much
you want to do and whether your institution already has a computing lab
with the equipment and support necessary to create Web sites. If you want
to be able to do everything from your office, or your institution does
not have the equipment anywhere else, here is what you will need to create
a good Web site:
Computer. A PC running Windows '95 should have
at least a
200 mhz (megahertz) Pentium chip, 32 MB (megabytes) of RAM, and 3 GB (gigabytes)
or storage on the hard-drive. Older machines with a 133 or 166 mhz chip
can suffice, but less than 32 MB of RAM often makes the machine too limited
to handle large images. An ideal configuration would be a PC with
a 300 mhz chip, 64 MB or RAM, and 4 GB storage.
Scanner. You will need to be able to scan up to 600 dpi (dots per
inch). This figure refers to the level of detail that the scanner can catch.
A document feeder is also useful if you will be scanning a large amount
of textual material.
ZIP Drive or JAZ Drive. These disk drives enable you to store large
amounts of data. On ZIP disk can store up to 100 MB, compared to 1.4 MB
for a standard diskette. While the final destination for your Web site
will be a server maintained by your institution, ZIP and JAZ drives offer
a way to keep backups or store work-in-progress. They are most useful if
you are using a large number of images. Otherwise, they are not necessary.
Image Software. These applications are like word processors, except
they create and manipulate images instead of text. They are essential for
any work on images. While most computers come with some sort of image manipulation
tool, few of them have the kind of applications that are easy or flexible
enough to create images for a Web site. The most popular image manipulation
software at many institutions is called Photoshop, made by a company called
Text Software. Optical character recognition (OCR) refers to a computer's
ability to see the picture of text and convert that information into computerized
text. OCR remains an imperfect technology. On a clean sheet of text created
by a laser printer, most OCR applications will make only one or two errors.
Anything else, however, and the software runs into trouble. All OCR documents
require considerable editing. People have tended to overestimate the ability
of computers to scan documents, instead of acknowledging the inevitable
frustration that goes with this process. Omnipage Pro is a highly accurate
and reasonably priced OCR package.
HTML Editors. While you can create HTML document on any wordprocessor,
many people prefer to avoid the process of entering tags. The easiest way
to convert a word processing document into HTML is to use a the most recent
versions of Microsoft Word and Wordperfect. Both applications enable you
to save files directly into HTML. Unfortunately, they cannot save footnotes
or endnotes. They also do not have an easy way to insert images or special
formatting information. Another option is to buy an HTML editing application.
Claris Homepage and Netscape Professional both enable you to do far more
than is possible through a standard word processor. Important note:
whatever you choose to do, it is important to keep in mind that all
Web editing tools still have significant limitations. As a result, it is
important to have a basic familiarity with HTML and to have ready access
to an HTML guidebook.
Total Cost. A multimedia computing package, including computer,
scanner, ZIP or JAZ drive, and software, usually costs about $5,000. A
more basic computer, capable of editing images you've scanned elsewhere,
usually costs about $2,500-3,000.
Funding. Information technology remains expensive, and creating
materials for the Web still has a high price tag. Fortunately, computing
remains the only growth field in the humanities. In addition, there are
numerous ways to reduce your own workload, which is no small concern given
the amount of time required to prepare information to go on line.
Information Capacity. This is where the information you gather from
your system administrator comes into play. Storage capacity, accessibility,
and technical support will all play a role in deciding the scope, and even
the aesthetics of your project.
Library. Find out of your library already has a digital center.
If so, they may be willing to scan materials from their holdings. This
is especially useful for digitizing rare materials. Placing old documents
on-line provides access to an unprecedented number of users, and finally
makes original materials a viable option for large classes. Equally important,
a scanned image of the original document connects students to primary materials
in a way that is impossible with transcriptions or black-and-white photocopies.
State Legislatures. Public officials are under tremendous pressure
to make information technology available to students. Indeed, the number
of computers at a public school, college, or university is often a boasting
point for legislators. As a result, state legislatures have opened their
coffers to fund electronic projects in way they have been reticent to do
with more traditional research or teaching projects. Obviously, this is
limited primarily to public institutions
Administrators. Educational administrators are under the same kind
of pressure as public officials (often because they must answer to those
same state legislators). They too have proven willing to provide seed money
or (in some cases) long-term financial commitments to electronic projects.
Foundations. Public, private, and quasi-private foundations are
currently investing large amounts of money in electronic projects. The
National Endowment for the Humanities, the Ford Foundation, and state historical
societies, are examples of the kind of organizations that have provided
money for electronic projects. Some of these have funded specific classroom
applications, but most have gone to broader archival projects designed
to increase access to rare materials.
Libraries and Museums. Some of the most effective projects have
been collaborative ventures involving local repositories. Major museums
and libraries have created their own electronic exhibits, but many smaller
collections remain untouched, often because these institutions lack the
expertise or support to launch a Web site. These organizations have proven
eager to work with universities, which can offer exactly the sort of resources
that libraries and museums often lack. The most problematic aspect of these
relationships usually involves access. Private collections usually want
to keep tight control over their materials, deciding what can go on line
and who should be able to see it.
Work Study. Undergraduates and graduate students remain an undervalued
resource for electronic projects. Not only do most of them have some familiarity
with computers, but many of them are eager to learn. This is particularly
important, because the absence of people experienced with scanning, HTML,
etc., does not mean you will encounter difficulty finding people to work
on your project. To the contrary, your own project can provide students
with the sort of practical experience and resumé filler they feel
they need to find employment.