Thoughts on the Canadian Historical Association Website Re-Design

The Canadian Historical Association is in the process of re-designing its website and has announced a soft launch of the re-design. You can check out the new look for the website and vote in an online opinion poll about the site. Unfortunately, an online poll is a rather limited way to get feedback so I thought I would post my thoughts about the soft launch version of the site here so we can start a conversation on this topic.

While I realize this is not the official launch of the site, there are a few things missing that I hope make it into the final version:

  1. RSS feeds: Right now, the site is not a very useful portal for news and information about the Canadian history research community if it doesn’t provide subscription services. Adding an RSS feed will also allow that content to be redistributed through other channels (like this blog, *wink wink*).
  2. User-generated content: It can be a lot of work to actively maintain regular content for a website. Why not outsource that work to your community? The re-design should include some basic Web 2.0 functionality for members, including commenting, user-created news, wiki-based content, and media uploading.
  3. Content aggregation: The CHA website should be a central portal for Canadian history content on the internet. The links section of the soft launch page is missing some significant online resources in Canadian history, including H-Canada, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, Canadian Historical Review, and Early Canadiana Online. While the links section needs to be fleshed out, the CHA website should also develop more innovative means of integrating open online digital history content. This could include embedding video and audio content, highlighting and re-posting new open journal articles, and compiling an aggregated feed of Canadian history blog posts. There is a lot of open online content out there and the CHA website should channel this content to the Canadian history community.
  4. Online social networking: Does the CHA have a Twitter account or a Facebook page? If so, this should be made evident on the new website. As it stand, it looks like only the CHA Graduate Students’ Committee has a Facebook page (although it has been relatively inactive since May 2009). The site should also include social bookmarking buttons to help disseminate news and information to a wider audience.

These, of course, are just suggestions and shouldn’t detract from the tremendous improvements made from the previous version of the website. It is important, though, that the CHA website include some of these suggestions to take full advantage of the rich digital resources and tools available to Canadian historians.

What do you think? Please leave a comment with your thoughts about the site re-design.

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7 Responses

  1. As a follow up to this post from yesterday, Michel Duquet, the executive coordinator for the CHA, wrote to me to address some of the points I made in the above blog post.

    Michel Duquet wrote:

    “To answer your
    questions:

    1. I will certainly look into incorporating an RSS feed to our website eventually, money permitting of course.

    2. This is a particularly novel approach that would have to be brought to Council members. Definitely a possibility.

    3. The useful link portion of our website will certainly be bulked up to include the sites you mention as well as all history departments in the country, research centres, a list of institutions who offer scholarship, scholarly libraries and journals, historian associations, etc. This takes time rather than money and it will be build up over time.

    4. Our facebook page should be up and running in December (once Council approves). For your information, the Canadian Committee on Women’s History and the Canadian Committee for the History of Sexuality also have
    Facebook accounts, although they have pages rather than have a group if I recall.”

    Needless to say, I really appreciate Michel’s timely response. It looks like the CHA re-design is heading in the right direction.

    Also, here are the links for the CCWH and CCHS Facebook pages:

    CCWH – http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2406519996

    CCHS – http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=20640197570

  2. I’d like to respond to a couple of points brought up, and add a few more.

    a) RSS feeds are free and should not be “money permitting” unless you mean the hourly wage you pay your webmaster to set one up and then leave alone. There are dozens of services that will freely create an RSS feed for you and there are many website platforms (called Content Management Systems or CMS) that will easily create RSS feeds of content. All RSS is is a way to subscribe to a website so you are informed when new content is added.

    b) Facebook is of limited use (in my experience) for generating interest in an institution. Most are created, updated once or twice and then ignored. Most people that join will never bother to look at the page (or group) again after an initial visit. You will likely have far more success with a subscription service either through RSS, Email or Twitter. Your webmaster should be able to set these services up to work automatically which means they don’t cost anything after initial setup.

    c) The design of the new page is set to a fixed width of 800px. That’s probably ok for a static site that contains some text, but right now I’m sitting at a monitor that’s 24″ across and I’m seeing a lot of white space. Given the amount of JavaScript embedded in the site, your webmaster is obviously proficient enough to check the resolution of a user’s monitor and adjust the style sheets accordingly – if you are concerned about people with small monitors or handheld devices.

    I’m glad to see the CHA making changes, but I think Sean is right, there needs to be a way for members to contribute news if nothing else.

    • Thanks for your comments, Adam. I was especially interested to read your opinion of the utility of Facebook pages for online community development among academics. I think on the whole, the evidence tends to support your argument. Even our own NiCHE Facebook page is basically defunct. Facebook does not tend to encourage active community involvement among scholars and it generally duplicates the content and functionality of that group’s website (unless it does not already have user contribution functionality).

      We may, of course, be totally wrong about this. There may be some scholarly group out there making full use of Facebook as an online community management tool. I suspect though that any effective use of Facebook requires a few core members of that group to manage and promote community activity.

      I think this is really the underlying point here about using the web for scholarly organizations like the CHA. Online community management requires active management in the same way that scholarly organizations require active management to hold annual meetings, produce publications, and other activities.

  3. Well I guess I spoke too soon about the uses of Facebook. Ikea came up with a great campaign using the tagging features, so I guess it’s all what you do with it: http://news.cnet.com/8301-17852_3-10404937-71.html?part=rss&subj=news&tag=2547-1_3-0-20

  4. Hi Adam and Sean,
    Thank you both for your feedback. In answer to Adam’s comment on RSS feed, when I mentioned “money permitting”, it was in fact in reference to the cost of our website programmer to create the feed. But if you think that there is another (i.e free) way to implement it, I would appreciate if you could get in touch with me at mduquet@cha-shc.ca
    We have also decided not to get a Facebook Page or Group created given that the experience of our affiliated committees has been less than positive. And since we do not have furniture to give away…
    As far as a user-generated content is concerned, it would also cost to have a module created. We may look at this in 2010 as well.
    Finally, I am told by our programmer that we can have 800 pixels (as we presently do) or 1024 width but not both. And since I suspect that the majority of our members do not have 24 inch screens, we may have to stick to 800 for now, unless we find a way around it.
    All that to say that I appreciate your feedback and that we will certainly to our best to respond to your wishes. In the meantime, we are concentrating on finetuning our membership system in order that we are able to launch our site as early as possible.
    Best,

    Michel Duquet
    CHA – Executive Coordinator

    • Thanks for the reply, Michel. It’s still great to see the CHA devote time to upgrading its site. I’ll leave it to Adam to contact you about free or low-cost way to set up an RSS feed for the news section of the site.

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