(return to Chicago essays)

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(This essay is a transcript from the 3Cities Project Conference 'New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: Cultures and Representation', Birmingham, Sept. 3-4, 1999)

My purpose here is to reflect on some of the issues involved in putting urban history on the web. These reflections are based mainly on my experiences with two major Chicago history websites, one completed a few years ago, the other now under construction. The first, titled "The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory," went online 8 October 1996, the 125th anniversary of this the famous disaster. The second, tentatively called "The Dramas of Haymarket," examines the Haymarket rally, bombing, trial, appeals, and executions of 1886-87, and the continuing heritage of these events to the present day. It is scheduled to be ready for viewing in the spring of 2000.

The sites are part of a multi-dimensional collaboration between the Chicago Historical Society, one of Americaís outstanding urban history museums and research centers, and NorthwesternUniversity. The impetus for these projects came from Douglas Greenberg, President of the Historical Society, and Bob Taylor, Director of Academic Technologies at Northwestern, the branch of Information Technologies devoted to supporting teaching and research. They invited me to participate since I have written on the fire and Haymarket, I am familiar with the resources of the Historical Society, and I extensively use the web in my classes at Northwestern.

The division of responsibilities on both projects is roughly the same. The Historical Society staff assembles the materials from its unparalleled Chicago history collections, and its photographers and technical experts prepare the scans. The computing specialists at Academic Technologies build the site at Northwestern. As curator, I am responsible for the theme and focus, the choice and organization of the contents, and the writing of all the descriptive and analytical text. One of the exciting aspects of both projects is precisely that they reveal the synergy possible through cooperation between a leading historical museum and a major research institution, neither of could complete such projects alone. The appeal of this kind of undertaking to me as scholar-teacher is the challenge of exploring the possibilities and limits of this new medium, and to do a kind of public history that can potentially reach a very wide and varied audience, as well as other historians.

"The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory" is a very large site, consisting of some 350 web pages in all. Within these pages are about 300 images, including scans of photographs, broadsides, lithographs, paintings, books, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, and artifacts; eighty transcribed and in some cases at least partially scanned documents, from letters to official proclamations by the authorities to the handwritten transcription of the testimony before a board of inquiry of Kate O'Leary, whose cow was widely thought to have started the fire by kicking over a lantern in the family barn; an Introduction and eleven interpretive essays; 275 captions and commentaries; and a bibliography. The name reveals what the exhibition is about. The first half of the site, subtitled "The Great Chicago Fire," proceeds chronologically, from the rise of Chicago in the decades before the Civil War to the fire itself, the condition of the ruined city immediately after the catastrophe, the rescue and relief efforts, and then the rapid rebuilding that followed the devastation. The second half, "The Web of Memory," deals with six different ways in which the fire has been remembered: eyewitness accounts, both verbal and visual; reports in different mass media, from stories and analyses in newspapers and periodicals to book-length "instant histories" churned out immediately following the catastrophe, as well as engravings and stereographs; more expressly imaginative retellings, such as poetry, fiction, songs, sermons, and paintings; the OíLeary legend, which has evolved considerably over the years; souvenirs salvaged from the fire or manufactured by opportunistic entrepreneurs; and commemorations by public and private groups in the city of Chicago, including past exhibitions mounted by the Chicago Historical Society. The two main divisions are each organized into "chapters" (there are five in the first part, six in the second) made up of one of the interpretive essays, "Galleries" of visual material, and a "Library" of texts.

This framework thus combines two interrelated approaches to its subject. In the first part it offers its own version of "what happened," and in the second it reflects on the importance of individual and shared memory to an understanding of the fire. In regard to this latter point, the website tries to be aware that by its very nature it participates in perpetuating, altering, and creating cultural memory. The contents were chosen and arranged with the purposes of this conceptual framework in mind. Looked at another way, the site is a combination of an archive of materials relating to the fire, a history of the event, and a consideration of a significant dimension of this event in particular and of history--as both an object and a method of study--in general.

The site pursues several guiding principles. In terms of content, the most important is that the presentation should be clear, and, more specifically, that the governing idea of memory should give it meaningful shape and purpose. Certain sections are more explicitly concerned with memory than others, such as the chapter titled "The Eyewitnesses," which contains the recollections of about two dozen people who "passed through the fire" and then told about it. Here and throughout the site, the goal is to explore the importance of memory in the development of an understanding not only of the past but also of the present and the future.

The inclusion a large number of manuscript and print materials in the libraries indicates the extent to which text is a substantial part of this exhibition. In addition to the written accounts in the "Eyewitnesses" Library, there are several transcriptions of stories from newspapers and periodicals in the "MediaEvent" chapter, and a small anthology of selections in the "Fanningthe Flames" Library, which is where the more "literary" entries are located. The Introduction and interpretive essays also add up to a considerable body of text. To make all of this as legible as possible, art director Paul Hertz and production coordinator Joe Germuska selected what they believed was a more reader-friendly font than characterizes most web text, at the same time widening the margins and then placing pullquotes and thumbnail images in this space, to make the pages visually attractive and to keep the browser focused on the contents of the site.

While we were constructing the exhibition, Hertz and Germuska met regularly to discuss several other vital design considerations, including overall consistency, liveliness, and ease of use. They wished to make sure that the viewer always knows where in the site he or she is, and to minimize the clicks required to get to key pages. They worked closely with John Alderson and Jay Crawford of the Chicago Historical Society, who did the photography and scanning, to provide vivid and accurate digital versions of the original documents and artifacts. In some cases where multiple renditions of the same subject existed, they used the webís flexibility to display this, and they similarly devised insets to examine related artifacts or created links to details to see selected maps and documents close-up.

They also took advantage of the webís multi-media capabilities to include some bells and whistles that enhanced both the form and content of the site. They converted some of the Societyís hundreds of post-fire stereographs into images that appear to be three-dimensional when viewed through red-blue 3-D "glasses." With the help of the plug-ins Crescendo and QuickTime, one can hear a medley of fire songs (the lyrics are also supplied) and view a 1955 newsreel on the razing of the OíLearysí old neighborhood in order to clear the area for redevelopment, including the construction of a new firemanís training academy. Instructions on how to download these plug-ins is furnished on the relevant pages, and in the page on Technical Support. There is also an electronic "Guest Book," to which visitors can send comments by e-mail. Perhaps the most dazzling feature of the site is its use of the plug-in Shockwave to simulate a 360-degree view of Chicagoin 1858 from the top of the Courthouse, or city hall. Paul Hertz electronically stitched this panorama together from eleven separate photographs taken by the noted photographer Alexander Hesler.

"The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory" is accessible at the Chicago Historical Society itself (which also has a small "real" fire exhibit) in two kiosks, each with three computers, and, of course, through any networked machine. It has been quite popular, with the number of online visitors through 1999 ranging between 11,000 and 31,000 a month, the heaviest traffic occurring in October, around the anniversary of the fire, when it is part of the curriculum of many local schools. Browsers range from these schoolchildren to undergraduate and graduate students (the site has been assigned reading in numerous courses) to professional historians, as well as the general adult public. It has received much favorable notice in print publications, from newspapers to scholarly journals, and it has been cited in numerous other websites devoted to education. The success of the fire site has encouraged the Chicago Historical Society to expand its online activities, notably an upcoming online examination of Lincoln assassination artifacts, as well as "The Dramas of Haymarket."

This latter project follows on another web initiative. The Historical Society, supported by the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition, is digitizing its rare and unique Haymarket holdings, which contain among hundreds of other items the transcript of the trial and several manuscripts by the principals in the case. This vast undertaking, which includes several thousand scans, is in turn related to the Library of Congressís very ambitious American Memory Project, which is placing large portions of the libraryís immense American history holdings on the Internet. "The Dramas of Haymarket" is thus, like "The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory," an interpretive site containing a great deal of primary material, though in this instance the interpretive site is linked to a separate electronic archive.

As indicated, "The Dramas of Haymarket" is currently under construction, and I can only offer a brief overview of it at this time. While the fire site is organized around the notion of cultural memory, the Haymarket exhibition frames its subject within the multiple ways in which the events it examines can be understood as drama and performance. This idea extends to the explicitly dramatic, even spectacular nature of the events themselves (e.g., the Haymarket meeting, the throwing of the bomb, the "show" trial at which the eight anarchists accused of murder and conspiracy were convicted, the executions of four of them, the public funerals, and a long list of demonstrations and commemorations), the tumultuous social context in which they took place, the view of what was happening in the minds of numerous participants, and the language used at the time and since to discuss all of these. The structure of the site itself follows dramatic form, consisting of a prologue, epilogue, and five "acts," which, like the fire site, offer a narrative history and an analysis, all the time featuring selected primary materials from the online archive.

The advantages to the historian-curator of working in this medium are several. Dealing with virtual resources liberates one from the usual physical and financial constraints of conventional museum shows or books, especially since the Chicago Historical Society owns the copyright on virtually all the contents. One can overestimate the actual savings, as there are different kinds of costs--relating to purchasing hardware and software, placing them within a networked infrastructure, and hiring or training a skilled staff - but there is little question that many of the logistics are simpler than with "real" exhibitions or books, and that there is considerably more flexibility. A site can be fairly easily revised or updated, and it can permit a large number of people to see things they otherwise could not get to view, at their own pace, any time or number of times, from wherever they have access to the Internet. Among the disadvantages are the fact that what is presented is, of course, mediated, though this may matter less with some historical documents than with a display of, for example, fine art, where seeing things first-hand is usually of greater importance. The web also reduces everything to its own scale, and, if poorly designed, it can be a cluttered, distracting, and frustrating mess. But it is perhaps misleading to compare these two websites to a standard museum exhibition or a book, since it is very unlikely that they, or many other Internet projects, would have ever been done in another form.

Given that we do have this form, what are the promise and problems of doing urban history online? I have tried to answer this question in an article prepared in 1998 for Perspectives, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, and, for the balance of this essay, I would like to expand upon that answer. I start with the contention that urban history is particularly suited for expression and representation on the web. Doing history usually involves connecting disparate information in sentences and paragraphs, building into articles, chapters, and books that define a subject and offer an argument about it. Good historical analysis makes compelling connections and constructs a coherent narrative that presents information and ideas in a way that makes convincing sense. Cities, for their part, are vastly complex and visitable (often actually, always at least imaginatively) sites which one experiences in any number and permutation of complex ways.

In its ability to combine dynamically a wide array of information (not only words and numbers and still images, but also sound and video, all linked in a multiple ways), the web can present explicit and implicit narratives of every sort in an accessible, even if virtual, location (i.e., a website with a unique string of URLs in cyberspace) with its own navigable geography. This location lacks the third dimension of depth, but it offers the possibility of moving through time. In so doing, the Internet offers great potential both to do history and to capture the "feel" of cities. (With new sophisticated simulation and modeling software, one can even "visit" places that have long ceased to exist.) It can at the same time communicate and enact the sense that the mental life of the metropolis consists a multiplicity of evolving understandings - each of which has its own history--of the nature of a complicated and contested actuality and how we can best approach it.

Let me break this down a bit. The web presents to historians what Robert Darnton of Princeton, Edward L. Ayers of Virginia, and other scholars with special interest in its promise describe as the multidimensionality that as writers and readers of history we have long desired. Writing in the March 1999 issue of Perspectives, Darnton observes, in regard to the electronic book, that it

offers new possibilities to authors, seasoned professionals as well as newly minted PhDs. Anyone who has done long stints of original research knows the feeling: If only my reader could have a look inside this dossier, at all the letters in it, not just the lines from the letter I am quoting. If only I could pursue that trail through the archives, despite the detour from my central argument. If only I could show how themes interweave through diverse bodies of documents, even though the patterns extend beyond the bounds of my narrative. Not that books should be exempt from the imperative of trimming an argument down to its most elegant shape. But instead of using the argument to close a case, they could open up new ways of making sense of the evidence, new possibilities of apprehending the raw material behind the finished surface of a narrative, a new consciousness of the complexities involved in construing the past.

Darnton explains that he is not advocating the mere accumulation of information or a new kind of footnoting through electronic links. "Rather," he continues,

I am defending the notion of an electronic book that would be structured in layers, like a pyramid. The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but as self-contained units that feed into the topmost story. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly different kinds, each set off by short, interpretive essays. A fourth layer might be historiographical, with selections from, and discussions of, previous scholarship. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion, a model syllabus, and course packets. And a sixth layer could contain readers' reports, exchanges between author and editor, and letters from readers, which would provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different publics.

"A new book of this kind," Darnton writes,

would elicit a new kind of reading. Some readers might be satisfied with a quick run through the upper narrative. Others might want to read vertically, pursuing certain themes deeper and deeper into the supporting documentation. Still others might navigate in many directions, seeking connections that suit their own interests or reworking the material into constructions of their own. In each case, the relevant texts could be printed and bound according to the specifications of the reader. The computer screen would be used for sampling and searching, whereas concentrated, long-term reading would take place by means of a conventional codex.

I cite Darnton at length because I think that an historical website that combines different features of a book and a museum exhibition (including a catalogue) with the expansiveness, multi-media capability, and hyperlinking of the Internet, has the potential for fulfilling the kinds of prospects described by Darnton even more fully than the monographs to which Darnton, then President of the American Historical Association, is mainly referring in the context of a discussion of the future of this endangered form of historical scholarship. The potential is particularly present in sites like the Haymarket project, in which an interpretive site is joined to an electronic archive with search capabilities. The web and Haymarket make an especially good fit since here we have an event full of indeterminacy, starting with an unknown bombthrower and competing versions of what happened and why in numerous forums and discourses. The larger context was a many-sided conflict over the direction of industrial urban modernity, which to this day resists any final and fixed meaning. What could be better suited to the web?

But my topic today is, to repeat, the possibilities of the web not just for Haymarket or history in general, but for urban history and urban studies in particular. As Ayers, Executive Director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, whose beautifully designed and intricately detailed collaborative Civil War project, "The Valley of the Shadow," is arguably the single most impressive historical website to date, points out in a highly suggestive recent essay on VCDH site on the implications of the web for the future of the discipline of history, the Internet is especially good at assembling and representing a multiplicity of associated elements in a new kind of historical narrative.† This narrative can convey a palpable sense of human experience as a series of dynamically interrelated systems of thought and action.† While it is suitable for representing a wide number of historical subjects, it is especially appropriate to cities--especially large cities since they are aggregates of dynamically interrelated systems, subject to events within and beyond themselves, and changing over time.

But what exactly does this mean, and what about the charge that much of cyberspace, for better or for worse, resembles nothing more closely than urban sprawl? On the more abstract level, good websites have "urban" features of density, contiguity, diversity, and serendipity, and consist of many different elements arrayed in relation to each other, containing vast amounts of information, activity, and a history of their own. But an effective site can perhaps go beyond these vague and perhaps even misleading structural analogues to furnish at once both a multi-leveled map of a place and, simultaneously, a helpful guide and the freedom to explore on our own. That is, it can put us into a complex urban subject and setting, offer some perspective and insight, but also the opportunity to go oneís own way and draw independent conclusions. To cite Ayers again, it can try to convey a sense of the structure and flow of life. Getting back to the suitability of the web to history in general, it can provide an interpretation based on a body of information and, at the same time, access to immersion in that information.

How can it do this? Darnton's remarks suggest the kind of strategy we have attempted to follow with the two Chicago sites. These involve presenting a narrative account, a conceptual framework (e.g., cultural memory, drama and performance), at the same time laying before the viewer the information on which the account and framework are based. Neither a web argument nor a web archive are pure forms, since effective historical argument almost always contains primary evidence, and any historical archive, no matter how exhaustive its contents or imaginative its search engine, is shaped by working assumptions and practical limits. A good website also takes the fullest advantage possible of meaningful transitions between its different constituent elements through links. When we hear a person's words, it deepens (and perhaps complicates) our understanding to see an image of the person, and to explore the intersection of this individual life with an historical moment. In the case of urban history in particular, there is also great value in trying to link events and people with maps and other related images, so that we can more fully place things in their physical setting. This can go on without end, of course, time and cash and copyright willing, but it is possible at least to suggest the inexhaustibility of urban culture within a finite, though always expandable, site. Some of this may sound utopian, but, as in so many other instances, the relevant question is not whether the form is perfect, but whether it advances the understanding of the subject. Electronic history and traditional work should be viewed not as competing with but as mutually enriching one another, in the larger web of urban scholarship.

Carl Smith
Department of English/Program in American Studies
215 University Hall
Northwestern University
Evanston, Illinois 60208

Carl Smith is Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English and American Studies, and Professor of History, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He is author of Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920 (University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman (University of Chicago Press, 1995). This essay is adapted from a talk presented at the 3Cities Project conference, "New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: Cultures and Representations," held September 3-4 in Birmingham, England.† The author would like to thank Melinda Spitzer of the Chicago Historical Society, Jason Betke of Academic Technologies at Northwestern University, Douglas Tallack and Anna Notaro of the University of Nottingham, and Maria Balshaw of the University of Birmingham, for their advice and assistance.

Last updated 16th November 2000