Building an Online Community for Historians in The Netherlands

At the recent National Council on Public History annual meeting in Milwaukee I participated in a working group called Public History Online: Using the Web to Collaborate and Share. The goal of the working group was to "discuss how we can build more democratic and sustainable cultural institutions using digital technology and the web". Visit the blog to read the reflections of all participants. Below is the piece that I wrote on my project (with a big thanks to my colleagues at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands who commented on various drafts). 

By the way, be sure to check the new International Federation for Public History



Building an Online Community for Historians in The Netherlands


The Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) and the Royal Netherlands Historical Society (KNHG) are currently in the process of redesigning the website with the aim of turning it into an online community. The redevelopment of this website is funded by the KNHG, which is the largest professional organisation of historians in The Netherlands. The website is hosted by the Huygens ING which is part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences (KNAW) and the biggest historical institute in The Netherlands. As the KNHG is a department within the Huygens ING, all work takes place at the institute in The Hague.

History in The Netherlands is practiced in various settings. Apart from the Huygens ING, eight Dutch universities have history departments. Looking at the heritage sector there are several important museums on a national level and a great variety of local and regional organizations. Within this context, our ambition in creating the new website is manifold. First of all we aim to promote and facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration among professional historians (whether academics or those employed in the heritage sector), students and the public at large and thus engage users in a new way. It is also a way for the KNHG to modernize itself and provide a new service to its large membership. But the ultimate ambition is even more wide-reaching: we want to show the public at large that “history matters” and make the website a place where historians can show that what they do is useful for society at large.

The current version of the (HIST1) provides users with information, news, events and especially (digital) resources about all aspects of Dutch history. The future, enhanced, website (HIST2), of which a beta version should be ready by summer 2012, is intended to become a platform for discussion and online sharing and collaboration for professional historians (whether academics or those employed in the heritage sector), students and the public at large. My role is to develop and build HIST2, together with help from our IT department and input from the editorial board of the current HIST1 website and a special preparatory group. This group consists of the Huygens ING director, the KNHG director, two web editors, two researchers, our communications/outreach officer, the head of our IT department, another IT person, and me. When we enter the testing phase we will also create a special test group that will include institute employees, KNHG members and current users.

We have just finished the planning stage, basically consisting of two months of circulating draft outlines and discussions/meetings with the preparatory group, and have begun to design the new website using Drupal Commons (DC). This is a specific installation profile of the well-known Drupal CMS, designed to build online communities. Meanwhile we are also introducing Web 2.0 elements in the existing website (sort of a HIST1.5) – such as a comments function – in order to prepare our existing readership for the coming transition and encourage active participation.

As I see it, the group’s major questions (how do we create spaces to share / opportunities for the public to work with experts / convince users to use us) relate to both content and design: the question is what we offer and how we offer it. Content and design cannot be separated: a website can have brilliant content, but poor design will prevent users from finding any, and will hamper them to actually use a website to its full potential.


Outline of the new website

The crucial difference between HIST1 to HIST2 lies in the realm of interaction between user and website: instead of allowing users to merely absorb information passively, they will be able to contribute information and participate in discussions. Users will also be able to present themselves through a user profile and can subscribe to new content via their profile.

The new, interactive website will function as a platform with four main user goals:

  1. to find information, receive personalised updates and contribute content
  2. to present themselves via a user profile
  3. to participate in discussions
  4. to collaborate online

At the moment, we offer mostly static content: descriptions of sources and links to digitized content (20+ years of institute publications, databases and applications in various formats) and bibliographies; news and events. HIST2 will become much more dynamic by allowing for user-generated content. The existing userbase is gradually prepared for this change by the phased implementation of more interactive elements on the current site. On HIST2, users will be able to send us information on important websites and/or (digital) resources that they feel we should include. There will be links to reviews and articles from historical journals with the possibility to discuss them; discussion groups to which users can subscribe or which they can start themselves; blogs & wikis that users, or groups of users, can start; etc. Users will thus be able to participate on several levels: they can comment on general news items, for instance, but also participate in (or create) specific groups that focus on a particular interest. All content on HIST2 will be linked by using tags. These form the basis for the search function and also allow us to offer users personalized content because users can subscribe to specific tags (for example a period, a theme, a type of source, etc). We are currently thinking about using both controlled vocabularies and a free tagging option for users.


Technological choices

We had a lengthy internal discussion on the system that we would use for HIST2. The current website is based upon the Zope framework and is essentially a frontpage with a lot of databases and applications linked to it. Whatever system we will use for the new website, it entails migrating the current content (mostly descriptions of sources, news and agenda items) to a new CMS. It also means that the digitized sources of the institute (many databases and applications in various formats) will have to be linked to the new CMS.

After an initial survey we ended up with two possible out-of-the-box online community systems: Buddypress, a plugin for WordPress, and Drupal Commons. A try-out of both systems quickly revealed that using Buddypress/Wordpress would limit us in creating the functionality we would like to offer. By contrast, Drupal Commons does not pose such functional limitations (of course in general Drupal is a more powerful and flexible CMS than WordPress but there is a very interesting example of a Buddypress online community at CUNY that we found very attractive).

Functionality is only part of the story of course. We also had to consider the question of who possesses knowledge of which system, what implications our choice would have for the IT department (think server maintenance for instance) and how to train staff to use the new CMS. As I am currently the only one with Drupal knowledge this is an important issue.


Engaging users

This is of course the tricky bit: one can build a beautiful website, but people have to be encouraged to become active users; merely providing the infrastructure is only part of the work. In our case, we have already started to add social elements to HIST1 while thinking about a strategy for HIST2. As mentioned above, we now have a comment function for news items and have actively begun soliciting reviews of exhibitions and movies to broaden the scope of content. As to the latter, one thing we realized is how important it is to diversify our contributors and guide them a bit; elderly historians in particular often do not realize that writing for the web is different from writing a review for a journal. This also points to another issue; in The Netherlands there are a couple of well-known pundit-/columnist historians. We would like to have a regular blog on general historical issues in the news for HIST2 but we need to make sure we engage younger historians. One way to do this is through the membership of the KNHG which is very broad. And fortunately for us there are also some new organizations (one literally called “Young Historians”) with whom we plan to collaborate. We also plan to list vacancies for historians on the new website which is also a way to attract young historians.

Our particular challenge is to broaden our audience. We compete with several historical journals/magazines and websites that focus on the public at large while we have academic origins and try to attract both audiences. The most important thing that distinguishes us from other websites/portals is that we offer digitized sources (that are produced within the institute). HIST2 will also include descriptions/links for digital content and relevant websites elsewhere, effectively making us the primary portal where people looking for historical source materials will go. Our ultimate ambition is to create a comprehensive portal for anybody with an interest in Dutch history, where one may find both relevant content as well as participate in discussions, or collaborate online. The latter is a big challenge, though; there are for example several groups on LinkedIn where discussions relating to Dutch history now take place and of course we would like to see these take place on our website in the future.

In the coming months we will develop the portal as well as a strategy to engage existing and new users. As to the latter, this entails defining which audiences we would like to attract and reach and think about the ways in which we can best target them. In terms of usability and design of HIST2 we will also create a beta user group, consisting of ‘digibets’ as well as more computer-savvy users, to test the website.

The original reflection can be found here and includes several comments.


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