Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Comparison

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 1911, was the largest industrial disaster in New York City at its time, causing the death of 146 garment workers who either died from the fire or jumped to their deaths. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which fought for better working conditions for sweatshop workers in that industry. Although there is much information concerning this tragedy on the internet, there are only two comprehensive websites dedicated to it. The first I will evaluate is a website made by Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) School. The second website is sponsored by The University of Missouri-Kansas Law School. Although both websites fall short of excellence, both have incredible potential to add significant scholarship to the internet.

Cornell University’s website, simply entitled “The Triangle Factory Fire,” is the first hit when “Triangle Shirtwaist Fire” is typed into www.google.com. The site’s goals are stated explicitly in the “About This Site” section. The sources of the site, what is included in the site, as well as the history of the site are all posted in this section. The site was originally inspired by a steady flow of requests from middle and high school students for information on the Triangle Fire that the Kheel Center at Cornell University was receiving. The site states clearly that the bulk of the primary sources were drawn from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union Archives, which reside at Cornell. The exhibit was made possible by a collaboration between the Kheel Center and UNITE HERE! Union, which incidentally makes aware that problems still exist in sweatshops in the United States today. This fact could be made more prominent in the site, however, for the user must click on a small link at the bottom of the home page to be taken to the “UNITE HERE” website. I believe a strong lesson could be observed by making this issue more prominent. However, the “About This Site” section states that the exhibit “was designed to provide an easily used resource to assist in the writing of class papers.” So, it is clear that the site, while being useful to researchers or interested parties of all ages, is aimed towards a younger student audience for the purpose of class projects.

The exhibit is broken up into sections that contextualizes information before the fire, the fire itself, and afterwards. It is a pretty simple layout, relying mostly on the primary documents to tell the story. There are plenty of primary documents on the site, including testimonials, personal letters, songs, and newspaper articles. However, all the written documents are transcriptions; no images of the originals are provided. While I am confident in the quality of the transcriptions, I believe that young students would find images of the originals very interesting at which to observe. In addition to written documents, there are photographs and illustrations, as well as audio files of oral histories of three survivors, and a lecture by former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins concerning the tragedy. The photographs, which appear in context as you move through the site contents, are clickable, providing a closer look. However, once you click on the photograph, it takes you to a new window which organizes all the pictures concerning the same topic (Mourning, Relief Work, etc.), and the user can get distracted by wanting to view all the pictures and not reading the text linearly. This could be a concern, especially for younger students who may become easily distracted. Also, the audio files would not work on my computer, and there are no transcriptions of the audio clips at this time, which would be very convenient.

There are also other resources such as a list of victims, which provides information such as name, age, address, source of information, and other information such as family connections. The source of information section is particularly interesting, as it shows students how historians painstakingly piece information together from different primary sources. A commemoration section informs the site’s users to commemoration events, and it was updated as of this year, even though the majority of the site has not been updated since 2004.

The site has good searchability components, with a search bar remaining in the top right hand corner of each page. The user also has the option of searching the Triangle Factory Fire exhibit, or all of the ILR school. The “Bibliography” section is also very useful. It breaks sources down into juvenile literature, primary sources, secondary sources, fiction and poetry, audiovisual, and instructional materials (which are especially useful for teachers). There is also a comprehensive “Related Links” site, which provides students with more information if they are interested. The “Tips for Student Projects” page is helpful, yet incomplete. It outlines the difference between primary and secondary sources, which can be very useful for younger students. It also offers useful information on selecting sources for a project, which warns students not to assume that what they see on the web is all they can get. They also offer a small section on “Citing Your Sources,” which stresses the importance of crediting sources and discourages plagiarism, but it basically sends students to another link of how to cite sources in a bibliography rather than explain the process itself. It would be helpful to provide a guideline of how to cite the website itself, as well as other sources. There is also a “Tell a Friend” option, which can be good for students who wish to help other students with a project, and a “Visitor Book,” which allows users to leave comments regarding the site and the tragedy. Through the “Visitor Book” it is evident that the site has been useful to students all over the world (I saw entries from Rome and Portugal, among others).

Another interesting component of the site is the “Criminal Trial Transcripts.” In this section, a link to the transcripts of the criminal case against the owners of Triangle Shirtwaist Company that followed the fire is provided, available at the Kheel Center for Labor-Management site. The section itself describes how the documents were found, the steps taken to digitize the documents, and information contextualizing the documents. This is very interesting and useful information not only for young students, but also historians embarking in the history of new media field.

The University of Missouri-Kansas Law School’s site is unfortunately of lesser quality than Cornell’s site. It is a component of the school’s “Famous Trials” website, the link of which is dead. The site is the third site on www.google.com to come up. The site is very simple, and there is no evidence of a recent update. There is no credit or any contextual information on the site. It is unclear whether the site is intended for purely law students, or a broader audience. I believe that law students would probably make the most use out of the site, but the site does contain useful information for scholars of all ages.

It seems as though this website may have gotten all of its material from Cornell’s website. Most of the documents available on the site are also available on the Cornell site and there is a direct link to the Cornell site on the homepage. There is an introductory essay by Douglas Linder (on whom there is no information), copyrighted in 2002 (which incidentally is the only date indicated on the site; there is no mention of when the site itself was created). Although the information provided in the essay is useful and interesting, it exceedingly dramatizes the events revolving around the tragedy. Also, in the “Bibliography and Links” section there are only two sources, and most of the links are also found on the Cornell site.

There are two other components on the site which the Cornell site does not have: a timeline and a maps section, both of which are very useful to contextualize the information. There is also a helpful section outlining New York Building codes at the time of the fire, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company’s compliance to those codes (most of the codes were followed, ironically enough, which really points to the fact that the building codes were not sufficient at the time). There are eight newspaper articles, all coming from New York Times (and also all of which are on the Cornell site). Also, the articles are transcribed, and there are no images of the original documents. The scope is also limited, as there is only information from the New York Times and no other paper, and there is no coverage of the second trial. A preliminary report of the New York Factory Investigating Commission (in 1912) and the key testimony before the Fire Investigating Commission concerning the fire are also included, which are a very lengthy transcribed documents. There are transcriptions of trial excerpts and trial summations, which are very useful and interesting, but are not organized at all. Once again, while I am confident in the transcription quality, it would be interesting to see the original documents. There are also good photographs incorporated into the site, but they are relatively small files, with no zoom or slideshow capabilities. Like the Cornell site, there is a list of the victims provided, but there is no evidence as to how the makers of the site compiled the list. There is absolutely no searchability of the site, which would be very useful for users who want to find a particular name or keyword, since the documents are lengthy and not organized.

Overall, the Cornell site is a great start as an educational tool for younger students. Made with the student in mind, it is easy to navigate and it allows students to piece together information from primary sources in order to create their own narrative about the tragedy. The site has incredible potential, but it feels unfinished. Images of documents could be included, because I feel that young students would benefit from seeing the condition of older documents, as well as observe the difficulty of transcribing handwritten materials. Some sections, such as the “Tips for Student Projects,” could be expanded as well, to give more help concerning the site itself, and not simply prompt the student to “ask your teacher.” Despite its setbacks, the site is very useful and it presents an innovative way to teach students about the tragedy of the fire and a portion of American history in general.

The University of Missouri-Kansas Law School’s site, despite its primitiveness (as far as today’s web standards go), can also be incredibly useful, particularly to law students, but also to other scholars and young students. It takes one component of the tragedy, the trials against the company owners, and gathers material focusing on that component. However, it suffers from a lack of credit and bibliography. The site should also incorporate searchability, since there is so much information to sort through, and it seems that many students would be searching for a particular name, such as a witness. It would also benefit from digitization of its materials. Overall, with a considerable effort to maintain and organize the site, it would be a valuable addition to the information on the web concerning the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

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