Sustaining a web exhibit requires dedicated time, energy, and funding. Antebellum Cincinnati: Social Intersections in the Queen City, a website I designed with my classmates in an undergraduate history course, does not have an in-depth sustainability plan for these reasons. Unable to support ourselves through funding or a dedicated staff, though we had hoped to design a more complex and interactive site, we recognized that we needed to scale back based on our resource limitations.
Because we were in a semester-long class that would part when the semester ended, we discussed how we might maintain the site after we departed. We suggested that a student or an instructor periodically check the site to ensure links, pages, and features were up-to-date, and to moderate comments. I offered to assume this responsibility, but my instructor pointed out that whoever managed the site would be responsible for doing so for years to come, perhaps for the rest of their lives, in the midst of whatever other responsibilities he or she would assume in future years. The same was true for my instructor, who would be performing new research and teaching new courses—it would be difficult for her to maintain every digital history project her students developed, especially after she retires. If the designated site manager did not moderate comments promptly, visitors to the site may grow disgruntled. Thus, she advised us to construct a site that would function without regular maintenance.
We did not have a large or diverse pool of outside stakeholders from whom to draw sustained funding. We also recognized that most students would not be able to continue contributing to the site after the course ended. Thus, we designed a site that didn’t require a major sustainability plan. To ensure the site had some longevity, we requested some server space from our university to host the site. This also enabled us not to worry about how we would pay to keep the site live from year to year, or make sure the site was constantly updated. Additionally, because we were limited to a semester to design the site, we decided to create a largely static site that would be easier to leave online without maintenance, and could be something to which students in future courses could easily add their own components.
Without donor funding, we did not need to ensure that we were using donations in the most effective ways possible to meet expectations. Though we aimed to create a site that was engaging and beneficial to the public, we did not need to worry that its simplicity would disappoint anyone who had contributed funds to the site. We also did not need to create evaluation tools to measure the effectiveness of our site or how much public usage it attracted, since we would not be modifying it after the course’s completion. Instead, we tested the site on a sample of users and tweaked weak areas before launching it in its final form. Our choice of WordPress as a platform enabled us to view statistics about how our site is visited and used, allowing us to measure to a limited degree how well we met our goals, but we didn’t need to quantify this information to satisfy donor reports.
Therefore, our site consists mostly of text and images offering brief histories of various subjects and institutions that tell the story of Cincinnati in the antebellum period. Our goal with the project was to highlight the various intersections and conflicts between diverse institutions and social groups in the teeming immigrant “Queen City.” We did so by adding links to related articles on the site showing how these groups clashed and interacted. We also incorporated a few lesson plans that drew upon materials from the site.
We made one minor effort to incorporate an interactive component by linking our site to a HistoryPin page we had created, which displayed several historical and contemporary images of the institutions we had discussed on our site, pinpointing each on a map of the city. Users may view the images and use a scrolling fade tool on a historical image superimposed over a street view of the contemporary site to see how a site looked both in the past and today. HistoryPin allowed users to contribute their knowledge and resources to the site in a way that did not require ongoing moderation on our part, and the site was simple enough that future students taking the same course could adapt it to meet their own goals. Relying on HistoryPin and WordPress hosted by university servers eased concerns about running out of storage space as users continued to contribute content.
Overall, the site is rudimentary, but effectively serves its purposes. It acts as a reference page for those interested in learning more about Cincinnati during the antebellum period. Had we had more time, resources, and leadership who could devote themselves to the project long-term, we would have implemented a more robust sustainability plan. Nevertheless, the project helped me learn the importance of web sustainability and what measures to take to ensure a site’s effectiveness and longevity. Though we initially had big dreams for our site, we measured our means and the ultimate goals of our site and scaled back our undertaking to operate more smoothly using a limited sustainability plan. Our final site plan enabled us to avoid the challenges of maintaining ongoing sustainability.