Recently, many history professionals have envisioned the Internet as an efficient medium for collecting and storing a large amount of historical information. The History Lived Web archive is an effort in this mode. History Lived offers a venue for visitors to contribute personal narratives and images of their lives in order to "record the true and complete story of America in the words of the everyday people that make America what it is." The site then makes the submissions available to visitors by year (on the left of the screen) or by subject category (on the right). The site is just getting off the ground and the first several submissions range in scope from the story of a first love to a memory of the Challenger disaster.
The all-inclusiveness of the History Lived could be a benefit or a liability. While casting the net widely means that every visitor has something to contribute, the site may have trouble inspiring visitors to become invested in the site by actually taking the time to type out a narrative. The site's designers have tried to overcome this hurdle by specifically requesting entries on topics of popular interest or national importance, such as the death of Elvis or the fall of the Berlin Wall, and by constructing subject categories about which people may be most nostalgic like "Family," "Heroes," and "Traditions." These efforts have generated a few responses, and surely as the number of entries grows, more people may feel inspired to share. But until reaching this critical mass, obtaining submissions may be an uphill battle.
While History Lived may have trouble generating submission momentum, the site gets A's for most technical aspects. The layout is simple and attractive, and the subdued visual design excludes flashy styling, complicated features, or advertisements. In this sense, the site appeals to an older, more mature audience, as well as audiences who may be less comfortable with the online medium. Simplicity aside, navigation within the site is still a little tricky, requiring visitors to follow as many as four links to get to archived materials. Perhaps the two key organizational features, though, are the links for submissions (available at the top of every page) and the front-and-center list of the most recent submissions on the homepage. The ubiquitous links for submissions mean that information on participating and an email link are always one click away, minimizing obstacles to potential contributors. The list of recent submissions facilitates locating new records, but could also advertise the lack of new material if the same few submissions continue to greet repeat visitors.
Ultimately, History Lived is a good test of online collecting methodology. The site offers an easy submissions process, and organized access to the archived records. If the site can now inspire contributors for a significant body of records, it can become a valuable resource for historians interested in memoirs and personal histories of life in America.
George Mason University
November 8, 2004