Using Technology, Making History: A Collaborative Experiment in Interdisciplinary Teaching and Scholarship

by Brian Dennis, Carl Smith, and Jonathan Smith

June 2004

Archives, Scholarship

Originally published in Rethinking History Vol.8, No.2, June 2004, pp.303-3171

Since the summer of 2002, the three of us at Northwestern–a historian
(Carl Smith), a computer scientist (Brian Dennis) and a learning technologies software architect (Jonathan Smith)–have been involved in a multidimensional effort that combines history and computing. Our aims are both pedagogical and scholarly. We wish to bring together computer science and humanities majors in a class where they can consider how their interests relate to each other and might be combined on the Web. On one hand, we want historians to explore how working with computer scientists as full intellectual and creative partners might offer them valuable new means of conceptualizing, researching and publishing their historical scholarship, and of expanding the ways in which their readers make use of that scholarship. On the other, we want computer scientists to consider how their knowledge and skills might be applied to the kind of qualitative analysis involved in historical thinking. We do not wish to talk about all this in the abstract, but want to join with students in both disciplines to ‘make’ something, i.e. to direct our collective energies towards the creation of an actual online historical project.

Our desire to do this emerged from the intersection of our respective individual training and experience. Carl has for some years used digitized materials to present a wide range of subjects in his American studies courses. He has curated two Web-based historical exhibitions, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory ( and The Dramas of Haymarket (, as part of a collaboration between the Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern’s Academic Technologies, the division of Information Technologies devoted to teaching and research. He has also spoken and written on the possibilities of doing historical scholarship on the Web ( Brian, who has an appointment on the journalism as well as the engineering faculty, has recently taught a cross-school new media class on technologies that support online newspapers. This relates to his research on how unsupervised communities of motivated authors effectively extend substantial bodies of heterogeneous content with their own annotations. Jonathan, a senior member of Academic Technologies, has long specialized in the creation of sophisticated software that provides an online environment for group work, especially through the use of multimedia authoring and presentation tools within a distributed environment. All three of us are also committed to collaborative scholarship and learning within the classroom and beyond, and we hope that any methods and materials we develop for our own purposes may find application in others.

Wishing to focus the class on a subject related to Carl’s research in American urban history, we chose the 1909 Plan of Chicago, often called the Burnham Plan after its primary author, the noted Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham (Figure 1). The editors of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Chicago suggested the Plan to us. The Encyclopedia, which is sponsored by the Newberry Library in cooperation with the Chicago Historical Society (major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the City of Chicago, and the State of Illinois), will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004. Assisted by Academic Technologies, the editors plan to produce an online edition in 2005, with production based at the Historical Society. A special feature of the electronic version is what the editors call Interpretive Digital Essays (IDEs), multimedia entries that have no counterpart in the print edition. They would like to include an IDE on the Plan of Chicago, and so they invited us to devote the class to this topic.

Figure 1 Title Page of Plan of Chicago.

Figure 1 Title Page of Plan of Chicago.

For a number of reasons, the Plan is a very promising choice. Burnham was the most noted of the Progressive era architects involved in the City Beautiful movement. Inspired by his success directing the design and construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Burnham led or participated in plans to refashion several American cities, including Cleveland, Washington and San Francisco, as well as Chicago. The Plan of Chicago is thus a very important document in the history of city life, art and architecture, early twentieth-century reform movements, and related fields. It is of interest to a variety of groups ranging from students at all levels to professors and planners, as well as non-specialists engaged by the issues it explores, and the physical and imaginative appeal of its ideas and how it presents them. In part due to Burnham’s reputation and the influence of the Plan’s local sponsors, the business leaders who were members of the exclusive Commercial Club of Chicago, it became the official blueprint for thinking about the future shape of the city. The Planwas publicized widely through many different means, one of them an educational edition complete with questions for students and an answer book for teachers, which became part of the curriculum of the Chicago public schools.

Since in several respects the Plan expresses an elitist vision that overlooks some of the realities of the fluid and often contentious nature of urban democracy, and because certain of its key assumptions were out of date almost immediately (e.g. it did not fully anticipate the automobile revolution), many of its major recommendations have gone unrealized. But a number of its important ideas have been enacted–albeit with modifications–in such distinguishing elements of the Chicago cityscape as the lakefront parks, Navy Pier, Michigan Avenue, and the two levels of Wacker Drive (named after businessman Charles J. Wacker, Commercial Club member and first chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission). Perhaps the most significant heritage of the Plan, however, was to persuade people that the modern industrial city most fully embodied in Chicago not only required remaking for economic and aesthetic reasons, but also that it could be remade, and on a grand and comprehensive scale. The most quoted statement attributed to Burnham (the source has never been verified), cited repeatedly and almost always in reference to his vision for an improved Chicago, is ‘Make no little plans’.

What drew us to the Plan most of all is that it strikes us as precisely the kind of historical subject that is suited to the expansiveness and multimedia capabilities of the Web. The document itself, a yearbook-sized volume gorgeously illustrated with pastel-hued elevations and bird’s-eye views of a Chicago that might be by artist Jules Guerin, is a visual treasure whose handsome design and boardroom table gravitas inspire confidence in its recommendations (Figure 2). It locates all its proposals within an encomiastic history of city planning and a critique of Chicago’s existing built environment. These proposals can only be fully understood by supplementing the Plan’s many maps, photographs and other visual elements with more materials of this kind. A book that tried to include all of this visual content would be prohibitively priced, and much of the supplementary material can benefit from the kind of non-linear presentation and navigation that is one of the Web’s defining characteristics. While there are some indisputably central figures in the development of the Plan, notably Burnham and co-author Edward H. Bennett (a member of Burnham’s firm), the cast of characters and the historical developments that comprise the antecedents, creation and implementation of the Plan intertwine in ways that the Web can also represent more effectively than can the linear format of print or film. The Web can capture as well or better than any other medium–and in a way that is widely accessible in terms of cost, convenience and legibility–the changes that a large city undergoes over time by offering striking ways to compare the city in 1909, what the Plan of Chicago proposed, competing ideas, and what actually happened.

Figure 2 One of the Guerin Illustrations.

Figure 2 One of the Guerin Illustrations.

In addition, we chose the Plan because, thanks to the generous cooperation of local cultural institutions, we have been able to gain access to extraordinary resources without the costs and the copyright complications that undertakings like ours often encounter. To facilitate both the class and to support the creation of the IDE, the Chicago Historical Society has scanned each page of the Plan at very high resolution, as well as many other documents and images, including the original Guerin drawings in its possession. The Historical Society also created a digital version of the text that may be searched and tagged. The staff of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago, which hold many materials relating to the Plan, most important among them the papers of both Burnham and Bennett (Figure 3), as well as lantern slides that were used in publicizing the Plan, have so far prepared some 800 scans for our use. This scanning work was done as part of a grant to the Ryerson and Burnham Archives from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Both the Chicago Historical Society and the Art Institute of Chicago arranged to make the originals of all the documents they have scanned as well as other items (the Historical Society, for example, holds the records of the Commercial Club) conveniently accessible to our students in their respective buildings. The Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, with support from the Hewlett Fund for Curricular Innovation, has provided funding to cover the costs of gathering and organizing both digitized and printed materials, while the Northwestern University Library, which has its own extensive holdings of relevance to the Plan, has furnished work space for the project. Finally, we continue to consult with several individuals and organizations in the Chicago area who have special knowledge of and interest in the Plan of Chicago. Among the organizations is Chicago Metropolis 2020, whose purpose is to encourage metropolitan regional planning for the twenty-first century, and it has produced its own publications on this topic, including a website (

But how were we to accomplish our two main goals, namely a class on computing and history and the creation of a substantial project that makes a valuable contribution to both fields? We started by concentrating on the class, somewhat pretentiously titled ‘Using Technology, Making History’, which we offered for the first time in the winter term of 2003 to seventeen computer science students and eleven historians. Of these, two were graduate students–one each in history and computer science. Registration was by permission only, not to weed people out but to ensure that students were prepared for the course’s experimental nature. We did not expect the programmers to know a great deal of history, nor did we require the historians to have any special knowledge of computing beyond word processing and Web browsing, but they all had to be willing to feel their way along with the instructors. While the three of us consulted together on all aspects of planning, Carl was primarily responsible for gathering the primary and secondary historical sources, Brian for selecting the programming tools we would expect the students to use, and Jonathan for creating the collaborative software environment.

For this last purpose, Jonathan prepared a Wiki. A Wiki is elegantly described by Ward Cunningham, co-author of The Wiki Way: Quick Collaborations on the Web (2001), as ‘The simplest online database that could possibly work’. More precisely, a Wiki enables a group of authorized users at different remote locations to create and edit shared content together through their individual Web browsers. Even a person with no programming skills can create pages and cross-links, thus allowing ‘the organization of contributions to be edited in addition to the content itself’ ( Our class Wiki (Figure 4) proved remarkably flexible in hosting course information, links to all the digitized historical and computing resources we were to use, communication capability between members of the class and subgroups within it, and space for work in progress.

Figure 3 A Sample Document.

Figure 3 A Sample Document.

The initial challenge was to present the material that we believed the students needed to know before they could proceed further, and then devise a way to go from there. We spent the first few weeks of term introducing all members of the class to the Plan by reading and discussing it with them, both as a historical document and as something to be presented and analysed on the Web. We asked them meanwhile to survey the other available primary and secondary source materials. We also informed the programmers which software tools we expected them to use and familiarized the historians with what this software could do. In addition to HTML, these tools included Flash MX and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. Given our aim to have the historians and computer scientists work together on an IDE for the online Encyclopedia of Chicago, we decided to organize ourselves into a production team charged with this responsibility.

To this end we divided the students into groups according to their own preferences. Four of these groups consisted of at least two historians and two programmers working on specific aspects of the Plan. One group examined how it was created and its key recommendations, while the other three focused specifically on its proposals for the lakefront, local rapid transit, and the improvement of Michigan Avenue as an aesthetically appealing major commercial boulevard. These groups met separately outside of class on a regular basis to consider how to analyse and present their topic area’s content on the Web and to determine which members of the group would be responsible for what tasks in writing the history and putting it on the Web. The fifth group, which was composed entirely of computer science majors, worked on the development of new tools both for creating and making full use of projects of the kind we were building. The three of us conferred both individually and collectively with each of the groups throughout the term, using the scheduled class time for reports on their work to date and considerations of common issues, as well as for visits by Northwestern faculty in areas related to our work, including Web design, interactive story-telling, urban history, GIS systems, the development of transportation systems and urban planning. Members of each of the groups made research trips to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Historical Society. In lieu of a final exam, the groups made formal presentations of their work, and every student submitted a written account of what he or she had contributed.

Figure 4 Home Page of Class Wiki.

Figure 4 Home Page of Class Wiki.

We adapted the production team model to our pedagogical purposes. We did not expect a class of twenty-eight students to produce a finished IDE on the Plan, especially given the brevity of the ten-week terms of Northwestern’s quarter system. In addition, since we wanted to give the students a great deal of intellectual and creative freedom, we did not present them with a lot of restrictions regarding the precise nature of the form and content we expected. We did prescribe a few things for the students in each of the subject groups, however. They were to devise a way to include with their analyses access to relevant digitized primary materials. Our intention here was to encourage them to fulfil the promise that the Web offers historians to give readers both a cogent argument and an archive of the sources on which that argument is based. If this is done well, a website can enable readers to look at these sources for themselves, evaluate the analysis(or even bypass it altogether), and come up with ideas of their own. We also asked the students to consider in particular how best to integrate elements all the subject groups were likely to use, such as galleries of annotated images, profiles of individuals and groups, time lines, comparisons of the Plan and the actual Chicago, and the representation of change over time. We told them that their highest priority was to present the Plan and its history as clearly as possible. While they were to make imaginative use of the Web as a medium, we much preferred a highly legible and intuitive design to purposeless and even counterproductive razzle-dazzle. To help develop the class’s thinking on all these matters, we examined with them several other sites, some of which the students discovered. We were particularly eager to find sites that similarly attempt to represent the evolution of the urban built environment online, such as the dynamically designed Animated Manhattan(, or that try to depict relationships between people, such as the irreverent They Rule (

Despite all these guidelines and activities, however, we still ran the risk of dealing only indirectly with our key concern, which is how best to combine the concerns of history with the capabilities of computing. We want our students to do more than launch digitized historical content unreflectively into cyberspace. Combining good history and good computer science demands careful thinking about how these two approaches to knowledge might converge. The central question here is whether history and programming share a common ground on which to build something distinctive that perhaps expands the range of both disciplines. We found that the richest way to pursue this question was through a term in common use in computing that makes immediate sense to historians and, for that matter, to any humanist presenting a complex argument. This term is ‘information architecture’, which means the identification, labelling and organization of content within what computer scientists would call an information system. A website is an information system that is of great interest to both computer scientists and historians. As a general rule, however, the two disciplines come at this interest from opposite vantages. Information architects among computer scientists, employing graphic design and interactivity, produce websites to house and present information of all kinds. For the most part, historians consume information on the Web, and they, like all other Web browsers, favour sites that are constructed in a way that presents content cogently.

Historians are also information architects, even if the information systems with which they are traditionally most familiar are lectures, articles, books, archives and libraries. They have to determine just what is the most salient information they wish to convey to others so that they can present this information in a way that is most clear and persuasive. They must also consider what are the connections between different parts of the content of their work in deciding what is an effective means of making these connections. Concerned with such relationships as those between cause and effect, sequence and simultaneity, individual and group, idea and action, historians work with certain established structural conventions to erect the bestframework to communicate their findings. In advising the different subject groups in our class that consisted of both history and computer science majors, we tried to impress upon them the importance of thinking about the information architecture of their Web pages primarily from the point of view of a historian. We suggested that the most promising way to do so was to frame what they believed were the most interesting questions the Plan of Chicago and the other source materials raised in terms of their particular subject area. Since they could not possibly list, let alone answer, every possible question the materials prompted, we asked them to think about what kinds of questions the Web could answer particularly well.

We created two related sections on the class Wiki to advance this kind of thinking. The first we called ‘Historical Themes’, which explained our larger intellectual purposes. Within this section we laid out some thirty questions about the Plan, all open to further refinement or modification, that we thought were worth pursuing. We indicated for which of these questions the students had at hand the most substantial sources, especially digitized ones. Among the questions were ‘How did the thinking behind the Plan develop and evolve?’, ‘What are its key assumptions about the nature of urban and Chicago life?’, ‘What aspects of the Plan have been most influential?’, and ‘What did the Plan recommend, what actually was (and was not) implemented, and why (or why not)?’

The second section, called ‘Information Architecture’, spoke about how historians summon factual, descriptive or other information to make a contestable argument, and how much finding a sound intellectual design matters in doing this well. This was followed by a list of ideas that we used as the basis for our discussions with the students of how Web pages can be constructed with such an argument in mind. While we referred the class to treatments of information architecture, from such classics as Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville’s Information Architecture for the World Wide Web(1998) to more informal analyses like Peter Greenspun’s ‘Envisioning a Site that Won’t Be Featured in’ (, we also attempted to impress upon them some principles ourselves. These included the importance of trying to understand the user,designing the site in a way that keeps him or her in control, and building in some measure of forgiveness that protects against getting lost or confused. We also advised the students to give the user as quickly as possible any information that is needed to understand what follows and to explain how that information is arranged, as well as to make sure that users know where they are at any point and how to get where they wish to go. We likewise pointed out that if there is any extensively used tool or structural element, the reader needs to encounter the tool shortly after entering the site in order to master it as soon as possible.

We emphasized the vital role of what is called ‘interaction design’, another term from the world of programming that applies to traditional as well as online historical scholarship. Interaction design is the ‘conversation’ that any interactive medium, which may be a museum exhibition but also a book or journal article, holds with its audience. We asked the students to define the goals of their conversations, which in our case meant figuring out the best way to raise and answer significant historical questions. This forced the historians in the class to think about audience more carefully than perhaps they did in most of their papers and exams, especially since the Encyclopedia is intended to be accessible to readers at several different levels without being frustrating or boring to any of them. One of the most useful practical suggestions we gave to the class as a whole was to think of their typical user as an educated person who is interested in the subject and, while not a technophobe, views the Web mainly as a practical tool. In some instances it proved surprisingly helpful to be much more specific, to ask them to design their pages and write their text not only with a professor but also with their roommate, a sibling, a parent–or all three–in mind.

We instructed the computer scientists in the tools group to deal with the needs of users who wanted to examine our subject matter in some depth. After speaking with the three of us and other members of the class, they concentrated on making it possible for more sophisticated and ambitious readers, while examining the primary sources on the site, to take personal notes on these sources and communicate their ideas to each other. By the end of the course, the group had developed prototypes of two very useful tools. The first is a Web-based image annotation and indexing engine that enables readers to write, save and retrieve their own notes as metadata. These annotations are placed in a database. The engine then permits these readers to do keyword searches of their annotations that call up the related digitized sources. The second prototype is for a researcher’s Web notebook. The notebook not only serves as a place to record one’s ideas, but it can also look proactively at the researcher’s notes and then, by employing a search engine such as Google, find what it thinks are the other most relevant resources on the Web and place links to these resources in the notebook. This Web notebook potentially may be used with other kinds of search engines and indexed digital repositories on any subject.

The achievements of the class were clearly positive but mixed. Several aspects of the work of the subject groups were excellent. The group discussing the Plan’s antecedents, creation and recommendations devised a very clear structure in which to examine these connected but separate issues and to view essential documents. This group also did the best job of building the structure of its historical arguments into the information architecture of its Web design. The Michigan Avenue and the transportation groups both dealt well with the twin challenges of demonstrating and analysing changes in the cityscape based on the Plan, the Michigan Avenue group through the display of still images in a notably elegant and intuitive online gallery, the transportation group by making it possible to layer in different combinations maps of the rapid transit system in 1909, of how the Plan proposed to improve that system, and of service today. The lakefront group prepared the most versatile information architecture for navigating its Web pages.

The historical content was not as full or as substantial as we had hoped it would be, however. The students did not make as extensive use as we had expected of the large amount of digitized primary material. While we advised them that most successful information architecture is that which draws the least attention to itself, some aspects of their designs were overproduced and a little clunky. A few students also had difficulty at first in finding the right tone. The drafts of some of the text came far too close to boosterism, as if the students felt that their purpose was to celebrate the Plan rather than to analyse its strengths and weaknesses critically. We told them that this would not do, that their work on the Web needed to be up to the same standard of scholarship (including citation of sources) that was expected in papers written for other history courses.

Many of the difficulties the students faced were not their fault. The class was as experimental for their instructors as it was for them, and this showed. While teaching it proved immensely interesting and rewarding to us as educators and scholars, the fact that the three of us were feeling our own way and learning about each others’ approaches as we went along made it hard to give the students as clear directions as we usually can in our classes. A ten-week term of our quarter system is too short a time in which to produce something innovative yet polished while simultaneously considering carefully the implications of the whole undertaking. We perhaps did the programmers a disservice by suggesting that they use Flash, which for some of them had too steep a learning curve with too small a pay-off.

We hope to do better the next time we teach the class, in the spring term of 2004. We will try to furnish the students with a clearer overall informationarchitecture in which to work, explaining to them the reasons for and consequences of our choices. We will likewise provide them with a standard if flexible template for a typical page, both to relieve them of the burden of this task and to try to assure that what they produce fits as seamlessly as possible into one large but integrated site rather than what appears to the user to be one component of a collection of smaller sites. We will also try to define a group of questions that better unify our work as a whole so that students have a sharper sense of what they are to do. We will also put more emphasis on building an archive for the primary materials, especially the Plan. We expect to have more refined software tools available that are appropriate for use by historians, and that offer a better foundation for extension by programmers. We will modify and expand our overall guidelines and instructions based on the experiences and accomplishments of the students in the first class. While we will be able to build on the work of the first class, we still will not be able to finish an IDE. We hope to do this during the summer with the assistance of history and computer science students who did outstanding work in the course the two times it was offered.

We certainly want to do our best to repeat the most important achievement of the first class, which was to develop a truly collaborative working environment across our two disciplines. The dynamics of the different groups varied considerably, and there were certainly some interpersonal frustrations in all of them. But what was most gratifying to us as teachers and to many members of the class the first time it was taught was the spirit of cooperation throughout the term. The computer science and history majors genuinely did talk about information architecture together repeatedly and at length. Most of them reflected for the first time on what they were doing in other classes as well as in ours. At the end of the course, several of the computer scientists remarked that this was the first time that they had thought about what they were doing in terms of presenting ideas to other people rather than just accomplishing a particular programming task. The historians, uneasily liberated from the linear structure of what they normally read and write while still held to the same rigorous intellectual standards, needed to consider more carefully than usual how one makes a good argument, and how form and content are always inseparable. The groups functioned the most productively when the computer scientists found themselves caught up in the history, the historians in dynamics of interactive multimedia design. We do not suggest that what we are doing is superior to other ways of ‘using technology’ or ‘making history’. We hope, however, that it enriches both by what it produces, and by the reflections on the two disciplines, individually and together, that it encourages.


1 Routledge cannot be held responsible for the content or accuracy of the urls linked to from the online version of this article, which can be found at


Cunningham, W. (2001) The Wiki Way: Quick Collaborations on the Web, Addison-Wesley Longman, Reading, MA. Rosenfeld, L. & Morville, P. (1998) Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, O’Reilly & Associates.


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