sag-harbor-obgc-scan

When creating anything, it is important to be aware of the context the creation will exist within, and the tools available to make the best possible product. In creating a website for the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground, an evaluation of similar sites and possible techniques is highly useful. Knowing what other communities have created, and what types of functions a website serve well greatly shapes how one designs and plans.

On the most detailed level, the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground currently has no website or any substantial material online, and even the printed material is sparse. There are two published books with relevant information. One of these books focuses on early regional (Long Island) cemeteries, and highlights particular stones in the Old Burying Ground in Sag Harbor. 1 The other book is entirely devoted to the Burying Ground and contains basic lists of burials and epitaphs with a few brief sections on the Revolutionary War battle that occurred on-site, with almost no images, and would better serve the audience as a database driven website. 2 The cemetery experienced minimal online coverage in local newspapers and lists of local historic places when tours or local events occurred.

The Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground is not unique in the lack of coverage available. Other local cemeteries (east of the Shinnecock Canal on Long Island) lack a dedicated website presence as well, although there are a few There are some local additions to national websites like “Find A Grave” and more recent celebrities buried on the East End have also received some database coverage.

An entire of genre of gravesite index websites exist including the more famous findagrave.com, and many were created in the wake of the computerized genealogy resource explosion dating to the mid-1990s. This timeframe is significant because of the limitations on interactive technology and fairly limited display of early websites. Textual material is displayed much as it would look in an email or on a piece of paper. Because cemeteries usually contain many markers, some means to navigate the markers and find the information listed really is necessary to make these sites useful. Without any maps or location guides, visitors must literally read every marker in the graveyard to find the stone they seek. Many of these basic lists contain question marks, misspellings and other indications questioning their credibility.

Findagrave.com really specializes in famous and well-known people, offering the equivalent of cherry picked historical records from a manuscript collection by only collecting the memorials for famous people and providing no context with other stones in the same graveyard. Similar sites like [http://politicalgraveyard.com/] also focus on famous individuals, rather than specific graveyards.

Unfortunately gravesite databases rarely contain any interpretation, and few contain any images or details of the artwork and epitaphs in the graveyard. Generally, one searches by Country, State, County, and sometimes Town or Village to find a graveyard. This method of narrowing facets has merit for a larger scale project like many of these national or state level projects, but for a project focused on a specific graveyard, this seems somewhat excessive.

Another category of graveyard websites is fairly popular, and that collection mainly focuses on images of the markers, particularly in the context of artwork. A good example of this category of websites is visible at this directory [http://www.dmoz.org/Society/Death/Death_Care/Cemeteries/Image_Galleries/]. While many of these sites have excellent images, few are interested in meshing the specific cultural history of the location and the historical data offered by the stones with the images. Like many other attempts to digitize history, graveyard projects appear to come in two facets—image-driven with little historical interpretation or information, or text-driven, largely in list or database format. While this problem is not unique to historic graveyard websites, historians creating digital history tend to be challenged by the task of combining text and imagery to offer interpretation, particularly on a level that is not extremely general or extremely granular.

These database or inventory projects offer little information about where the stones are located within a graveyard, which is useless to anyone trying to visit a specific memorial or find a memorial. Often, the projects just list names and dates. Generally, the graveyards listed do not have their own websites to link to, and there are rarely clear sources on exactly how to find these cemeteries, or the stones within the cemeteries. This is doubly frustrating given that most index and inventory sites do not transcribe the majority of the information on the stone, preferring to copy just a name, or at best a birth and death date.

A separate category of morbid “Haunted Graveyard” type websites seems completely ungrounded in history, especially given their marketing of haunted screensavers and television items. However, this category is worth mentioning given the focus on entertainment value, and the way this “entertainment value” is taken to an extreme, sacrificing the historic.

There are a few national organizations interested in gravestones and cemeteries, but these tend to offer more of a compilation of different resources than their own interpretation. The Association for Gravestone Studies [http://www.gravestonestudies.org/] offers an excellent compilation of resources ranging from websites for famous cemeteries to local and state laws for cemeteries and guidelines for preservation. The resources here are highly beneficial, but they target an audience of other professionals interested in graveyard studies rather than the general public. The websites collocated by the Association for Gravestone Studies tend to consist of nationally known large scale cemeteries, regional projects to blog about interesting features of local cemeteries, and abandoned index projects powered by genealogy databases. While the message board forums like the Maine Old Cemetery Association’s board [http://memoca.proboards.com/index.cgi/] seem to meet a specific purpose, and the blog-based Gravematter [http://www.gravematter.com] offer interactive discussion options, both are regionally limited to parts of New England. Gravematter excels in highlighting stones connected to interesting stories, but unlike several of the sites focusing on famous historical figures, Gravematter helps direct visitors to appropriate resources for each individual cemetery they highlight.

The best models for graveyard websites to imitate seem to be the nationally recognized famous historic graveyards in major cities like Brooklyn, Richmond, and Boston. Looking at websites for these nationally renowned graveyards, one finds significantly more useful resources for visitors, scholars, and the generally interested public. Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery’s website [http://www.hollywoodcemetery.org/home.html offers an option to search for a name and then put a marker on a Google Map where the stone exists. The site also offers a database of names with burial dates and some interactive features to post condolences. Web 2.0 interfaces allow people to submit “Life History” data for any individual in the database, but searching several of the more famous residents of Hollywood Cemetery revealed that none of these histories seemed to be publicly visible. For example, First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler’s “Life History” is blank, and her Obituary is unavailable. The same situation applied to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, whose grave is a highlight of tours of the cemetery.

However, Hollywood does succeed in providing some basic information about the cemetery, how to get around, and the less famous individuals buried there. There are panels for tours, both virtual and walking tours. There is also a slideshow providing some basic history of the graveyard.

Brookyln’s famous Greenwood Cemetery [http://www.green-wood.com/index.php/gwc] also serves as a good example of features that greatly augment a cemetery website, such as information about current events, tours, restoration and donations. However the layout makes it difficult to find some of the more important pieces of the website, really detracting from the value. The burial index is not entirely clear or simple to identify, and one is left wondering if the search will reveal the listing of this week’s current burials. The history of the location and the famous historic figures buried within Greenwood are a little bit clunky to find. There is a map focused on the more famous historical figures, like Hollywood Cemetery, but this map is difficult to print and acts much like a digitized archival manuscript with a Zoom Browser, even though the map provides some information about locations.

To find a stone, one has to operate two separate buried interfaces—this map and a burial inquiry index. One then must piece the two sets of information together independently. The map also does not offer information about the Revolutionary War Battle that occurred within the cemetery, and there does not seem to be significant exhibit material available, short of biographies of the famous. The burial index fails to provide any real detail of the information available on the stone.

The Greenwood website also reflects a series of splintered priorities and sub-groups amongst the caretakers—ranging from the Historic Fund membership to the cemetery historian to those currently in charge of internments. A large portion of the site reflecting current activity within the cemetery is not really appropriate given the inactive status of the burying ground in Sag Harbor.

Trying to locate other famous historic graveyards likely to have local funding and support, I turned to Boston, where I remembered touring at least two no longer used cemeteries. Historic graveyards in Boston are under the administration of the city, which provides one website for all their historic graveyards, available at [http://www.cityofboston.gov/parks/hbgi/default.asp]. This all-in-one website offers information about iconography, visiting hours, cemetery locations, and a basic name search database, which yields a name, a location within the cemetery, and a date, although it is not entirely clear from the display alone if the date reflects the burial or the birth of the individual.3 Some additional general information about stones and interpreting symbols is available on the Freedom Trail website, offering a few pictures of stones in a cemetery. There are many websites featuring a brief mention of a local cemetery with a couple choice pictures, and some of these do exist for cemeteries in Eastern Long Island. Some of these include transcriptions of lists of burials or materials from old local histories like Benjamin F. Thompson’s History of Long Island, but none of these transcriptions seem to really be intended for internet use since they lack images and interactive features typical of websites.

While less famous, Old Burial Hill in Marblehead, Massachusetts [http://www.oldburialhill.org] seems like it may be another good cemetery site to consult because of some of the shared history of the two graveyards, and because of the structure of the site. The website, which was professionally designed, offers an online narration of their typical tour using a balance of text and still images to highlight historically or artistically significant stones. This style of highlighting stones with significant text helps provide something to compare Omeka exhibits to, and offers a sense of how to balance imagery and interpretation successfully.

Continuing to broaden the scope of comparison, looking at websites for successful local history projects also offers useful examples of how to properly use the internet to talk about local history and interest outsiders. One of the quintessential projects combining local history and the internet is CityLore’s PlaceMatters project [http://www.placematters.net] , which features heavy images with limited text and extensive boxes that pop-up offering more information about sites on a map. By clicking on a dot on a map, a viewer is able to first see the name of the site at that location, and then a second click opens up the information about that site from the database. Several other historic sites and institutions offer websites where mapped locations are displayed to connect with their narrative, although the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s video of Google Earth Darfur event sites offers images of the detailed stories and pictures that can appear when a site is selected off of a map, in a manner similar to the intended design for the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground website. The video and materials can be found at [http://www.ushmm.org/maps/].

Looking at resources in Boston and Richmond, selected partially for their appreciation for local history and partially due to the previously identified useful graveyard websites, there are examples of two themes in digitizing historic material, which really need to be balanced carefully. Many local history websites tend to be excessively promotional of local museums, offer simple images and copies of text offered in exhibits, or particularly focused on the database-driven and inventory-list type of material previously described as common to graveyard websites. The online environment offers much greater opportunities than an exhibit binder or a searchable database, and sites like the Bostonian Society’s page and the advertisement type material focusing on upcoming events and sites to visit at the Richmond History Center. The Bostonian Society’s page offers some interesting examples of mounted exhibits, and the Richmond Center has a wealth of available information for someone who wishes to travel in person or attend things. However, both of these sites seem to fall short of realizing the current potential for web technologies, despite their flashy new sites.

Boston has several maps and images with no pop-up material, although they have attempted to annotate and illustrate these historical images using technology like Paint or Photoshop, but they lack navigation options and appear a little bit outdated. Much of the exhibit material also appears to be loaded on external private sites, including blog-type hosting. This illustrates the importance of having a clear explanation of the connection between linked materials on external sites and a main page. Attempts at photo exhibits with textual context appear to lack the ability to see both a detailed image and the text at the same time, and larger images open in a separate window.

Richmond’s site offers a wonderful compilation of all the options for a visitor—ranging from tours to complete Scouting merit badges to night life events and job opportunities. While they excel in offering extensive detailed information about a plethora of local sites, the inability to offer samples of the Traveling History Packs or really any substantial educational materials via the internet detracts from the site’s value.

In creating the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground’s website, it is important to understand pitfalls of other local history sites, and to realize the potential of the technology being used. It is the interactive, searchable, image-heavy, and universally searchable nature of this website that differentiates it from the already published book narrating a few stories of the lives of the interred and mostly compiling the text of the stones—names, dates, burials, and epitaphs. Interactive technology and the ability to offer frequent updates on activities offers the Sag Harbor Old Burying Ground an opportunity to connect with local residents and attract outside visitors who do not have another means of contacting the committee or learning more about the graveyard. Looking at local history websites draws attention to the need for successful ways to work with history and the public, and good ways to advertise events connected to a graveyard well.

Notes:
1This book is Momento Mori: The Gravestones of Early Long Island by Richard Welch, 1st ed. 1983.
2The Burying Ground Committee published this book using a publishing company that specialized in printing texts related to local history. The Old Burying Ground at Sag Harbor, L.I., N.Y., authored by Dorothy I. Zaykowski and the Old Burying Ground Committee was published by Heritage Books in 2003.
3The display actually reflects the death date, based on the entry for Samuel Adams’ gravestone, and my familiarity with his life, but that is the only way I was able to come to that conclusion.

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