Information is just bits of data. Knowledge is putting them together. Wisdom is transcending them.
Dass’ quote is more relevant now than ever—in a world where the average American carries around the accumulation of mankind’s knowledge in their pocket, making sense of the vast landscape of information offered by the Internet is no trivial task. While the issue of information credibility has seen its fair share of the spotlight in recent years, discussing the “issue” of information accessibility may at first seem to be an oxymoron in the context of our interconnected world—information accessibility is, of course, at its history’s peak when you read this sentence. Right?
Whereas information accessibility refers to a user’s ability to request data from a server and freely receive such data in the most literal sense of the term, the “issue” of information accessibility I’m referring to is the all-too-common lack of digestible information architecture sprawling across the web—whereas information accessibility in its former definition is continuously reaching its all-time peak, information accessibility in the latter definition may well be falling, depending on where you look. Because data is so easy to upload without any forethought (or afterthought) in today’s day and age, content creators are often tempted to data-dump material onto the web without first planning a logical layout of such material, rendering much of it difficult or impossible to find, navigate, and process. While the vast majority of online historical archives I’ve had the chance to browse do an excellent job of avoiding this pitfall, the ever-increasing pace of source digitization and ease of publication means that we, as responsible historians, ought to take a step back every once in a while to ensure our work is as accessible, transparent, cohesive, and welcoming as possible to both human and robotic (i.e. search engine optimization) readers. If our goal is to inform, educate, and inspire, we should make it easy for visitors to be informed, become educated, and be inspired—otherwise, we’ll be ditched in exchange for the browser’s “back” button.
Thus, the question becomes: how may we best lay out the structure of our information to achieve maximum accessibility?
This question set my imagination on a wild goose chase, culminating in a theoretical site map which (hopefully) serves as a solid starting model for the ambitious digital historian. Inspired by my comparative review of Freedom on the Move and the Geography of Slavery in Virginia from last week, I drew up a potential layout of an interpretative, analytical site discussing the insights revealed by runaway ads which would layer nicely atop the database provided by Freedom on the Move—one which I thought would cater to the widest audience and thoroughly examine the multidimensional implications of the database’s contents. Without further ado, check it out below.
Why would this model outdo others? We’ll start with the basics: its parallel-branched, treelike nature would enable simple, swift navigation by keyword and target audience to quickly land visitors to their intended destinations without obscuring access to underlying, raw primary sources. That is, I’d group my site into six main topics for analysis: geography, time, politics, economics, logistics, and demographics, and within each topic of analysis, I’d create three main sub-branches: one for an informal, quick and to the point summary of main analytical points within the topic; another for a more in-depth, scholarly look and at-length argumentative take on main analytical points within the topic; and a third providing a platform for crowdsourced, forum-like, collaborative analysis on main points within the topic. Within each of these interpretative pages, I’d enable authors to link to and easily reference primary sources from the database from which argumentative conclusions are drawn, ensuring accessibility and transparency. Alongside these interpretative pages, I’d allow users full, unrestricted search access to the database for those who seek a more in-depth look at primary sources, along with an about and references page to further the site’s transparency to authorship, motivation, and supporting resources.
Such structure, I believe, would cater to the casual historian, the argumentative, anecdotally-driven historian, and the quantitative, data-driven historian equally well, enabling each to quickly and easily find what they’re looking for: a brief summary, a formal investigation and debate, and an open, fully-searchable dataset, respectfully. The topic breakdown emphasizes key takeaways from runaway ad content and subdivides an otherwise unwieldy corpus into more digestible pieces—in particular, each section would deal with the following questions, answered by the text and metadata of runaway slave ads.
What geographic patterns emerge upon analysis of escaped slave ads? Where were escapes most common? What regional differences explain differences in runaway rates?
When was escape most common in centennial, decennial, annual, and seasonal scopes? How did escape rates fluctuate over time? What historical events explain such fluctuations?
What factors did national, regional, and local politics play in runaway rates? How did runaway trends parallel political change? What correlations exist between the political atmosphere of a time and place and its escape rate?
What economic factors played a role in slave escape patterns? Which industries were slaves most and least likely to runaway from? How did runaway rates parallel economic trends and developments?
How did slaves actually go about planning and executing escape? What anecdotal and data-driven evidence may we draw from runaway ads to explain how slaves fought the corrupt institution by leaving it? Were methods of escape widely similar, or did they vary by region and era?
Who was most likely to runaway? How did gender, class, race, and ethnicity play a role in slave escape? What inspired some slaves to run, and others to stay? Additionally, who was most likely to publish advertisements regarding escaped slaves? How accurate of a proxy are escaped slave ads in modeling actual escape rates?
Specific questions aside, a site which I believe does an excellent job of implementing this general model of information architecture is Revisiting Rebellion: Nat Turner in the American Imagination; it breaks down the main points of the rebellion into easily-navigable content groupings and provides quality interpretative synthesis within each content grouping all while allowing access to underlying primary sources. Quite frankly, one can’t ask for more!
I’ll end with a touch of wisdom from Muriel Cooper, whom The Professional Association for Design calls “a designer and educator who charted new territory for design in the changing landscape of electronic communication.” Whether or not you’re a fan of my own digital history information model, Cooper’s words are the undeniable truth.
Information is only useful when it can be understood.