Both of the largest professional history organizations, the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, have promoted the use of different paper presentations formats: poster sessions, round tables, pre-print paper sessions, digitally-based projects, and so forth. "Picture This!" was an experiment in moving a session and session papers outside the frame of the conference setting. Using both a web site with polls and a blog for comments, one of the papers, "History by Design," used results from the polls and blog both to inform the session and to underpin discussion following the session. This is the first of four reports: the first will examine the polls results, the second will evaluate the blog comments, the third will summarize and interpret both findings, and the fourth will have something to say about doing a "different" conference format and the final, revised paper.
The polls were available between March 27, 2005 and April 17, 2005 and attracted roughly 200 respondents each—a very good turn out. Such a turnout had not been the case only a week before the conference. In order to increase the number of those taking the polls, I enlisted the aid of the blogosphere and applied to Early Modern Notes and the Little Professor. Sharon, moreover, at Early Modern Notes passed on my request to Cliopatria. In a few short days, the number of poll respondents increased percipitously. Without the aid of the academic bloggers, the numbers would have hovered around forty respondents for each poll, and the project would have much less rich and far more parochial. The blog announcements, moreover, drew a global audience and added an additional dimension to the project. (The final numbers (n), including 20 poll responses from those who attended the session, as well as the graphs are available at the Picture This! site.)
Reducing the chart to a list summarizes which of the sites the respondents found most credible:
- The Price of Freedom: Americans at War (Smithsonian)
- On the Move: African American Migration (NYPL & Schomberg Center)
- Difference Slavery Made (American Historical Review)
- Famous Trials (Douglas Linder)
- 19th Century Children (Pat Pflieger)
- Victorian Science (Rikk Mulligan)
The chart suggests several preliminary observations. First, design does appear to matter to historians; they apparently make judgements based on a site's appearance. Those sites that exhibited the most sophisticated design scored highest in the credibility polls; those that demonstrated the most elementary design (with one exception) showed the poorest. Second, a single individual who designs his or her own site seem to be at a disadvantage. Those sites that were the product of a single author fared poorly against those that had institutional support. But the polls tell only half the story and paint with a broad brush. How specifically did respondents make their decisions? What elements of a site did they use in their assessments? Some analysis of the blog comments is in order.
Next: Picture This! Part 2: The Blog