Monday, November 23, 2009

Web Review: Railroads and the Making of Modern America

Railroads and the Making of Modern America
http://railroads.unl.edu/
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed November 21-22, 2009

Railroads and the Making of Modern America is a site dedicated to exploring the railroad system and it's effects on a variety of facets of American society between 1850-1900. The project is directed by William G. Thomas, III, Professor in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where the project is based. It is intended to be a research tool for academic courses on 19th-century American History.

Content is presented a number of different ways on the front page. An 'Index of Topics' breaks into nine themes tackling railroads and their role in slavery, the Civil War, William Jennings Bryan's 1896 Presidential Campaign, migration and immigration and tourism. Depictions of railroads by artists, construction of the railroad system and the 1877 Railroad Strike are also among the themes covered.

Themes often have small written summaries supported by primary source material and augmented accompanying media of some variety. Each topic has a Geographic Information System (GIS) map, podcast, animated graph or movie to build on the scholarship provided. The site is at it's most dynamic in use of the media. There are animated maps of railroad expansion where visitors can watch the railroad lines snake accross the northeast and midwest of the country over decades in condensed time and podcasts featuring scholars discussing a given subject.

The 'Views' tab provides visitors with the option of browsing the subject matter by media type rather than topically. 'Documents' provides a database where the user can select the type of source material used they would like to access (ex. Annual Reports, Speeches, Pamphlets, etc.) It can be narrowed by topic, full-text search or date. The three other tabs provided on the front page relate to further exploration of the topics ouitside of the site itself. Resources provides a somewhat modest list of the technological or intellectual material drawn on for the project. There is also a link to a few graduate student web projects that cover some aspect of the social history of the railroad and a teaching materials tab for history teachers to integrate the site into lessons at the college, secondary and even elementary levels.

Although the consistency in formatting of themes leads to ease of use, it at times feels a little too much like a template that information was plugged into. The overall aesthetics of the site are simple but at times feel a little too bland. Even though the site is only a few years old (2006) for these reasons it feels like a bit of a relic. The maps created for the project certainly could be more dynamic and interactive.

It seems as though there was a lot of thought and work put into generating topics for presentation along with production of original charts and maps to great ends. They were also succesful in gathering material from a wide range of sources (National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, the Newberry Library, the University of Nebraksa, the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Library of Virginia, Yale University, and other institutions and personal private collections) to create an original work. Unfortunately the site only sometimes takes advantage of some of the dynamic multi-media capacities of the web to make the subject matter truly come alive.

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