Website Review

             The Difference Slavery Made

In creating The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities[1], William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers wanted to blend aspects of traditional scholarship with the emerging electronic environment in order to showcase the best of those two worlds.

            Difference is an analysis of two similar communities located a few miles apart across a very important line, the Mason-Dixon Line separating the North and the South. Thomas and Ayers were hoping to isolate the issue of slavery and look at how it played a role in the shaping of societies- everything from demographics to labor, from economics to politics and culture.

            It is a blend of an archive and an electronic exhibit, because it not only presents its material for the reader to view, but also seeks to investigate and present findings to the public. In this case, their analysis of the data suggests that slavery was so pervasive throughout the South that it was taken as a given societal construct, and had very little to do with one’s political stance. The ownership or non-ownership of slaves had no bearing on whether one was a secessionist or a unionist; everything depended on the familiarity with the institution. In other words, if you grew up with slavery, you accepted it; if you didn’t, you didn’t.

            The site is laid out in an agreeable manner, with clearly delineated paths and a minimum of clutter. The first page lists along the left side the introduction, summary of argument, points of analysis, and methods. Across the top is the overview, presentation, about the authors, and acknowledgements. Above this line are the three areas of evidence, historiography and tools (text search, print, citation locator, and my favorite- the reading record, which allows you to see a graph of every element within the site, and keeps track of each element you have visited).

            No matter where you are within the site, you always have the option of returning to the beginning or switching between evidence, historiography and tools. And each page is clearly labeled to minimize confusion. Although this seems like an obvious and natural thing to do with a site, you’d be surprised at how few sites tell you where you are or allow you to easily get back to the beginning. Thankfully, Thomas and Ayers did allow for it.

            Their analysis is both thorough and in-depth. The comparisons between Franklin County, Pennsylvania, and Augusta County, Virginia, cover crops, election and campaign results of the 1860 election, property, race, religion, labor, commerce, schools, geography, and information and communication. Within each topic, a map provides you with the choice of counties, and within each choice, a summary of their position and analysis is backed up by primary sources, which you can access either within the article or through a link which they have provided.

            The beauty of this creation is that it allows the reader to have instant access to the data and primary sources from anywhere inside the article. Having the access to the historiography and the evidence allows for one’s own exploration and analysis. When Fogel and Engermann wrote Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974, they did the same thing, publishing all of their statistical data and analysis at the same time, in essence saying, ‘Here are the data, you decide if our argument is correct.’ But whereas Fogel and Engermann did provide the data, they were unable to provide an easy way to wade through it all; Difference provides it through the innovation of the digital medium.

            It is a medium that invites the participation of the reader, although one must follow a certain procedure to arrive at supporting documentation. But even so, the thoughtful considerations (and collaboration, among peers and graduate students) provide an experience that is in no way frustrating or exhausting. The depth of the article is far deeper and richer than could be produced in print, and allows for a highly enjoyable and enriching experience.

            The authors chose to create the site using XML because of the multiple-linking and search features, believing at the time that XML would become the de facto language in the future, and that using it would give longevity to their site.

            Even with all of the effort that went into the site by the authors and their collaborators, they were under no illusions about their final product. They are well aware that theirs was but a ‘first step’ toward ‘envisioning new forms of scholarship.’

[1] The Difference Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two American Communities, University of Virginia and the Virginia Center for Digital History; created by William G. Thomas III and Edward L. Ayers. Last site update: November 2005.

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