This past year, Colonial Williamsburg worked to relaunch its website on a new platform at the domain (not to be confused with the History Channel’s!). In addition to providing information for tourists interested in planning a trip to the living history village, the site also seeks to achieve educational outreach goals by providing a host of digital materials for researchers, learners, and history enthusiasts of all ages. Some of these resources are free and publically accessible. Others, however, require a paid subscription (although some opportunities are available to subsidize these costs). Within some tabs, educational opportunities are mixed with endeavors to advertise and sell products. Sometimes these commercial impositions unexpectedly inhibit open exploration of the site, though they are a clever means for an institution dependent on income to sustain such an incredible physical and online presence.

The site has an almost overwhelming array of tabs to choose from, putting information at an explorer’s fingertips. Some of these include:


The history tab provides general information about on-site programming at Williamsburg, as well as online resources about the history of Williamsburg, colonial life, and the American Revolution, categorized into searchable themes of people, places, life, trades, clothing, and gardens. Each of these themes is subdivided so that users can pinpoint specific information. For instance, the “people” page includes categories of race, gender, occupation, and family. One of the subtabs, “revolution,” leads to a site devoted to the American Revolution, presenting its history through a chronological exhibit, overview of the people who were part of the revolution, and a collections page. The history tab also includes a short “fact of the day” with a link to more specific detail for interested readers, and an interactive virtual tour of Williamsburg. The map invites users to click on sites, read about their history, view images of the interiors, and listen to period music; however, mixed with the historical tours are tours of Williamsburg’s hotels and dining facilities.


In addition to offering information about class tours, teacher professional development, and educational packages for teachers, the Education tab provides resources for instructors to use in their classrooms. A free E-Newsletter offers articles on teachable topics in American history. The site also contains a Teacher Community forum, where teachers can connect to obtain free resources, lesson plans, Teacher Gazette articles, teacher news, and share teaching and ideas with fellow teachers. The page also contains a Standards Correlations tab, where teachers can search teaching standards by state, standard, grade, and subject, to find lessons that will meet their particular needs. Moreover, it offers free advocacy tools for teachers to use when teaching crucial and often difficult lessons about citizenship.

Some of the site’s most valuable and engaging materials, however, come at a cost. The Idea of America, a digital U.S. history program and interactive online American history textbook requires annual subscription for full access to the site, which is replete with educational games, quizzes, videos, and primary source documents. The site also comes with teaching strategies for educators to adapt a lesson for their classroom or for particular learning abilities, as well as assessment tools and in-person and online opportunities for teacher professional development. Without the subscription, a general overview video and some teaching material are free for classroom use. However, specific subjects are available for more manageable pricing, often with discounts, and the site lists ways teachers may get the costs paid for by their school or by donors. For instance, teachers who attend Colonial Williamsburg summer Teacher Institute programs, many of which are offered through scholarships funded by donors, receive access to this digital textbook for free. The same goes for Enlight, an online learning program for all ages, and HERO (short for Historical Educational Resources Online), which offers videos, thematic programs and resources, and interactive explorations for students, including Electronic Field Trips. Although on-demand access to these materials requires a paid subscription, HERO Live programming is available for free on scheduled dates through local broadcasting systems and live-streaming.


This tab offers free online access to articles and historic recipes in Colonial Williamsburg’s publication, “Trend & Tradition,” as well as opportunities to purchase books and other materials. It invites donors who contribute $35 or more to the foundation to receive “Trends & Tradition” in print.


The Research tab offers access to online resources, including manuscripts, historical, archaeological, and architectural research reports for Williamsburg’s historic sites, surviving issues of the 18th century Virginia Gazette, York County estate inventories, and digitized photographs and other digital items through the Rockefeller Library’s digital library. It also provides information about how to access material from the library not available online. Access to the library’s subscription databases, however, are only available on Colonial Williamsburg computers. This page also includes digital access to Colonial Williamsburg’s Corporate Archives and Records. Additionally, it features online exhibits and multimedia history projects, including the Revolution site already mentioned on the Education page, as well as Principles of Freedom, a digital exhibit and documents collection pertaining to the Declaration of Independence, and Slavery and Remembrance: A Guide to Sites, Museums, and Memory, which is a collaborative initiative between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, and dozens of historic sites and museums around the world.

This site also describes how Colonial Williamsburg’s architectural, archaeological, and historical research teams conduct their research and what projects they are currently undertaking. An eWilliamsburg map offers a more strictly historical, and less commercial, opportunity to explore the town than the virtual tour mentioned above, while underway is Virtual Williamsburg, a digital 3D recreation of Williamsburg’s streets, buildings, and interiors as they appeared May 15, 1776, which requires a free download of Unity Web Player software to view. For interested researchers, the site also describes available learning opportunities with the Archaeological and Architectural Field schools, research fellowships, and behind-the-scenes tours.


In addition to advertising visitation, programming, and professional development opportunities for the three museums Colonial Williamsburg offers, this tab features collections and conservation overviews for each museums, online collections, features of new items in the collections, and online exhibits and multimedia on topics such as conservation, textiles and fashion, music, interpreting portraits and maps, as well as on collections of interest, such as folk art and coins and medals.


The multimedia tab features daily blogs, weekly podcasts, and monthly vodcasts on historical topics pertaining to Colonial Williamsburg. Other daily features include a “Today in the 1770s” article from the Virginia Gazette and an explanation of a historical word of the day. Additional videos, vodcasts, and podcasts and their transcripts are available on historical subjects. Moreover, the site contains audio files of famous speeches and documents, recordings of colonial-era journal entries and historical recollections, interviews and dialogs, and early music.

Downloadable multimedia such as historically-themed slideshows, wallpaper, screensavers, widgets and gadgets (which, much to my disappointment, don’t seem to be working at this time), and pumpkin carving patterns are available for free, although a few of the newest screensavers come at a small cost. The page also offers a daily jigsaw puzzle, as well as other historically-themed games, puzzles, and activities for adults and kids to play on computers, iPhones, and other mobile devices, and ePostcards to send to loved ones.  Some of the features on this page simply re-feature multimedia opportunities available on other tabs. Images from Colonial Williamsburg’s professional photographers are available for purchase or download within the Online Photo Store tab.


This tab contains animated educational games and activities for children to play on the computer or iPad. They include coloring books, crosswords, matching games, art projects, and other interactives that that teach about early American history and elements of colonial life. Many of these activities overlap with those available in the multimedia tab. The site also provides an overview, with resources, for parents and teachers.

With a large staff and revenue from tourism, donations, and endowments, Colonial Williamsburg has successfully been able to take advantage of the interactive opportunities of Web 2.0. Colonial Williamsburg integrates historical scholarship, public history, and the best practices of digital humanities well in their all-encompassing website, sometimes to the extent that a user is overwhelmed about where to click next, but eager to see more. Uninhibited exploration comes to a halt, however, when certain resources come at a packaged price. In an effort to sustain their historic site and encourage tourism, this history webpage is a combined historical research and education center as well as a commercial enterprise. While some of the prohibitive costs are understandable, such as the subscription fee for the massive research and labor put into the Idea of America online textbook, others, such as charging $3.99 for screensavers, are unnecessary. The location of some of these materials, locked by a login screen or a fee, amid freely accessible resources prohibits open research and exploration. Moreover, advertising initiatives for Colonial Williamsburg, on the same pages as material presenting historic scholarship, while strategic and clever, may lead a user to believe that the foundation is keener to make money than to encourage history education.


One thought on “Access at a Price

  1. appears to provide a plethora of history about Colonial Williamsburg! I appreciated that you pointed out that not all of the information is free and that the website is there to also promote the historical site so there are mentions of hotels, restaurants, and books that all require money. Websites like this one are very important for several reasons including promoting history and education. It is too bad that not all of the website is free to access. This may be a place many people never get to and by providing free and open access, many more people will be able to experience Colonial Williamsburg even without visiting.

    Liked by 1 person

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