Edward Ayers’s and William Thomas’s ambitious “The Difference Slavery Made” project from 2003 – and Thomas’s 2007 essay about it – illustrate both the pitfalls of using “new media” for the dissemination of scholarly research but also several good practices.
It is easy to look at the 2003 site as a wonderful example of the worst practices from the dark ages of Web design. Such fixed-width table-based layout was already deprecated practice in the early 2000s; the product of Web design’s being taken over from the computer scientists by a generation of graphic designers trained to think in terms of physical page layout rather than platform independence, it is a mode of design that met its overdue demise when the iPhone finally forced designers to take platform independence seriously. However painful the site’s æsthetics might appear in 2015, however, its content remains fully accessible (at least to a sighted user). This is a result of the developers’ decision to use standard and open technologies. In the 2007 article, Thomas discusses their original plan to use Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash–based navigation, which their reviewers panned as “gimmicky.” It is that; it is also a poorly documented proprietary technology that is inherently insecure and increasingly obsolete and will likely be entirely unusable by modern browsers in a few years’ time. By avoiding it in favor of open standards, they created a resource that remains useful more than a decade later – and can potentially remain useful indefinitely.
I mentioned that the site is accessible to the sighted user; I made that distinction because a side-effect of the site’s employment of poor design practice (by the standards of 2003) is that its content is hidden from adaptive technologies. One of the great advantages of new media can be their accessibility; a well-designed Web site is accessible to a visually impaired user employing a screen reader or Braille display in a way that a printed book or journal article never can be. Unfortunately, Ayers and Thomas – presumably through insufficient familiarity with the technologies and issues of accessiblity – failed to take advantage of that possiblity.
Another pitfall with Web-based publishing is displayed by a technical glitch in the 2007 article illustrated by this screen capture:
The “�” glyphs visible here are the result of a mismatch between the character encoding of the document (ISO 8859-1 or “Latin 1”) and the character encoding the server serves it as (UTF-8, the standard Unicode encoding for the Web). The result is that the nonbreaking space characters are transmitted as garbage bytes, which the browser renders using the “�” glyphs. Character-set conversion is generally not something that historians are expected to worry about, and in traditional publishing it is a problem that is dealt with only once: after the book has been typeset and printed, the electronic format is no longer relevant. But uploading a document in an obsolete encoding to a Web server that assumes the files it’s serving are UTF-8 is problematic, and such issues will continue to be of concern in the future.