Website Comparison: Coney Island
The proliferation of history and archival-based websites in the last ten years has brought about a wide variety of new scholarship in an easily accessible format, while also creating the need to be critical of historical information and analysis presented on the Internet. History presentations in the new media are essential to the field. However at the same time it is also critical to be aware of where historical information on the web is generated. The following comparison of three public history websites related to the history of New York’s Coney Island highlights some of the innovative aspects of history on the web as well as some of the disadvantages. Ultimately a comparison of any type or number of websites would reveal interesting advantages and shortcomings when dealing with information on the Internet. The focus on Coney Island provided an opportunity to choose from a range of sites that were diverse in nature while critically engaging with the ongoing history of America’s first amusement park.
The first website examined was an off-shoot of the PBS’s American Experience documentary collection. Though primarily meant to serve as a supplementary to the documentary, the site ultimately does present a number of diverse elements about Coney Island. The first section titled, “The Film & More” gives an overview of the documentary while setting a celebratory and glorifying tone about the history of Coney Island. It is immediately evident that this particular site does not engage with more current and relevant issues surrounding Coney Island today. While the lack of this information does not render the site useless, it does serve to box Coney Island into a specified range of dates and issues. The “Special Features” links presented on the site are diverse and provide a wider layer of historical background. The essays on the “History of Rollercoaster’s” and “Technology” helped broaden the historical perspective while introducing visitors to less traditional areas of history. This additional context adds richness to the history without diverging too far from the original topic. Unfortunately the information at times is dense and other than a few tiny pictures there is no visual element to accompany the history. The images cannot be viewed in a higher resolution and also do not include any captions or dates.
Other aspects in this section such as the “Postcard” feature and film clips were interesting tactics to attract visitors but overall lacked proper historical information and documentation as well as copyright information. The film clips were particularly disappointing as they contained no descriptive information, copyright or other metadata most commonly association with historically focused websites. The separate section, “The Gallery” employs a similar technique of excluded information when it comes to visual materials. Overall the film clips and photographs presented PBS with an opportunity to make their site serve as more than just an online compliment to the documentary. Their inability to provide extensive documentation and metadata is disappointing and extremely limiting for potential researchers.
The Coney Island, American Experience site does excel in two areas. The timeline section is one of very few that can be found on other related websites. In addition the information is detailed and the dates covered (1609-1985) is extensive. The accompanying pictures on the timeline are small, hard to view, and lack any citations. This is a trend throughout the website and one that could be altered to greatly improve the overall quality. Links to higher resolution scans along with title, author and date would increase the functionality of the site. Other Coney Island websites make reference to this particular timeline, which helps broaden the overall appeal of the site while at the same time drawing in more visitors. A timeline that extends past 1985 would be a nice addition, but would also require PBS to reference contemporary Coney Island other places on the site. The section labeled, “Teacher’s Guide” is one other area worth noting. The link provides suggestions for classroom activities after viewing the documentary. While the lesson plans are not particularly unique and focus towards a younger audience, placing the documentary itself in a larger online context is worthwhile. The combination of a visual documentary, complimentary website, and classroom discussion could be a very effective teaching method for middle school students.
In the conclusion the American Experience Coney Island website attracts a very limited audience which therefore impacts the overall aim, search tools, and display manner. The goal for PBS in creating this site was to create an online resource to compliment their documentary. Therefore the site neglects to provide high-resolution scans, any search functions, or visually exciting exhibit display. The site’s alliance with the PBS American Experience does limit the range of information presented, as well as the overall purpose of the site. It seems more reasonable to assume that this particular Coney Island site will be more useful for teachers and students than serious researchers or Coney Island enthusiasts.
The second website in this comparison was from the larger site “Amusement Park History.” The main website is run by an amateur historian with the goal to help facilitate the understanding of amusements parks, specifically the traditions and history that surround the industry. Creator Adam Sandy provides a helpful FAQ section which immediately allows visitors to gain knowledge of copyright issues, goals of the website, and reasoning behind selections and documents posted. “The Coney Island Pages” is one of Sandy’s featured links and clearly one of the better developed and maintained pages on the entire website. The actual website is quite complex with numerous links to articles, pictures, historiographies, stereographs, and postcards. Perhaps the most useful aspect of the site is its division between what was and what is. In this way the history of Coney Island can be presented, but it also means that the park isn’t isolated in time the way PBS presented Coney Island.
The ‘What Was’ section has a number of links with information about individual parks, roller coasters, and Coney Island attractions. While it still is very text orientated, there are many more photographs/sketches all with links to larger images. In addition the images have captions and provide information about where they were taken from. At times the information is a bit scattered, with no real historical narrative of Coney Island presented through the links of the web master. This aspect is nice as it allows users to navigate the site in any order, but it also means that at times the information presented is scattered and beyond celebrating Coney Island there is no coherent over-arching theme.
Sandy has included a postcards section in his website, but in contrast with the PBS site, The Coney Island Pages provides many more postcards which can be viewed in higher resolution. In addition the use of actual postcards allows viewers to read what was written on these postcards. While there are no transcription guidelines, the authenticity is a nice touch. The use of actual postcards also means that viewers can see how Coney Island visitors were enjoying the amusement park in different eras. While PBS boxed their postcards to fit a junior high audience, these postcards could be a potential starting point for serious researchers thus broadening Sandy’s audience.
The “What Is” section is the second half of The Coney Island Pages. Here the website has posted more current pictures of Coney Island (early 2000) and Sandy has included journal-like essay’s about visits to Coney Island in 2002 and 2003. This section is a nice addition as it serves to bring Coney Island into the present and includes the issues and debates that surround the park today. While it reads like a journal entry, it also gives those who can’t visit Coney Island a sense of what the park is like today and how that relates to the history that Sandy has worked to display on the rest of the site. While it is important to focus on the history of Coney Island given the mission of the website, current information is always an affective way to move historic sites into the present.
Overall “The Coney Island Pages” an interesting and useful website that has a wide potential audience base. Although in places the information is scattered, Sandy’s enthusiasm for the Coney Island is apparent. Information is citied, pictures are placed in context, and Sandy is forthcoming with copyright issues. Unfortunately is not always clear where some of the images were taken from. Once and awhile they are cited, but for most part Sandy has put his own copyright on many of the images. The use of quotes in historical essays from Coney Island’s peak period are a nice addition, which lends an authenticity to the website. While the site isn’t the most professional looking, the abundance of information means that users will be able to use the site multiple times. A bit more coherence of the individual sections would makes this a very easy to navigate, fun, and historically informational website on Coney Island.
The third and final website is the homepage for the “Coney Island History Project”. Established in 2004 the project is a not-for profit organization that aims to increase awareness of Coney Island’s legendry and colorful past and to encourage appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood of today. This website is a nice combination of the PBS site and the “Coney Island Pages” with a more professional, focused, and archival goal in presenting Coney Island history. In addition the organization is extremely forthcoming about the purpose, aim and goal of their project, which is helpful information for visitors to encounter early in the browsing of a site.
The two most complex and useful aspects of the website are the Oral History Archive and the online collection of archival materials. “The Oral History Archive: Voices from Coney Island” is an effort to gather oral history interviews from past visitors and workers of Coney Island from the 1950s through the late 1980s. This focus is significant as Coney Island Voices is not only important for gathering first-hand information about Coney Island but also on the larger community as well. The commitment to local history through learning programs with high school and college students is a great way to dissemination information about Coney Island while helping students build public history skills. No other project or website has even made mention of oral histories, so this oral archive is a significant and rare resource. There are a wide variety of interviews with various persons. The quality of the interviews is excellent even when they are phone interviews. There is no additional software needed to play the interviews which helps increase wider access to the material. The interviews do not contain transcriptions, which can be a problem for some of the larger and extensive interviews in limiting access to the information.
“The Collection” section is a selection of images from Coney Island History Project’s physical archive housed on Coney Island itself. The collection contains several hundred photos, books and artifacts and encourages others to donate relevant materials. The search options for the digital collection are extensive, but also supplies some ‘starter searches’, which is nice for those who are new to Coney Island and might not be able to generate effective search terms on their own. Each document displayed includes extensive metadata along with some background and historical information. These added captions are important as the rest of the website contains few other Coney Island history facts. Overall this section is extremely well done. The searches can be conducted easily and provide additional related links. All images can be clicked for higher resolution display and well as zoom and navigation capabilities. Browsing of the online collection is a fun way to learn more about Coney Island through visual and textual elements, but the database could also be a beneficial resource for professional historians.
Two other notable sections are “The Press” and “Development Map”. Together these two features help supplement the website with more current information about Coney Island, while making the site a sustainable online resource. “The Press” section is a nice addition because it provides links to more recent articles (within the last year) pertaining to the current activities taking play at Coney Island. Unfortunately some of the links do not work, however the blend of archival images and current articles gives the site a nice comprehensive look at Coney Island. “The Development Map” is a great resource that takes advantage of the technology of Google maps. The Coney Island History Project has chosen representative sites at Coney Island and provided links to a series of photographs in different eras depicting the particular site. While the tool is entertaining it is also extremely unique in its ability to quickly, and effectively show change over time. More sites and photographs could definitely be added to the map but overall this is a nice way for visitors to geographically orientate themselves with Coney Island, especially for those who have never visited or do not live in the area.
The final three sections relate more to the current activities the Coney Island History Project is involved with. The “Exhibition Space, “Photo Gallery”, and “Membership” sections together help promote the organization itself while drawing in new members and visitors to the physical exhibition space at Coney Island. Posting of events for the spring and summer of 2008 is a testament to the longevity of the site and ongoing use of the site.
The Coney Island History Project clearly has presented a website with multiple functions in an easy to use and professional manner. The online digital collections as well as the oral history archive are two of the most significant resources related to Coney Island on the entire Internet. In developing its own website, the Coney Island History Project has provided their organization with a way to increase awareness about Coney Island and potentially draw in more members and supporters of their mission. The process of comparing three websites on a related topic is an interesting exercise in understanding the quality and variety in historical information on the Internet. All public history websites have their limitations due to funding, time, and purpose. While each of the three websites examined in this comparison excelled in some areas, they ultimately all had areas for improvement. However, the combination of the three together provided a much more rich and diverse historical outlook to Coney Island.