Remarks at the Presidential Sites and Libraries Conference

at the George Bush Presidential Library, College Station, Texas

April 20, 1999

William G. Thomas


© William G. Thomas
All Rights Reserved, 1999
(portions of this text were published in the AHA Prespectives in February 1999)

I'm going to be talking today about the Valley of the Shadow Project at U.Va., a project about two communities in the era of the American Civil War, and showing you some of it as well. Recently, Choice--the leading academic publication for libraries--reviewed the Valley Project. The review, though, began with a disclaimer of sorts. It went something like this, "On any given day the World Wide Web is equal parts--money, sex, and the Civil War." I hope we're not judged by the company we keep. If we are, we're either in trouble or it explains why our site is so popular.

Before I talk about the Project and our experience at U.Va., I want to share with you a couple of observations. We've all heard the hyperbolic talk about the Web and its possibilities. In particular, we have all heard Vice President Al Gore--whose sweeping claims about his role in the boom on the internet have received so much derision lately--refer to the Internet as the "information superhighway." Well, if it is a superhighway, then it is one complete with brightly-lit signage, markers, and directions, but when you get off the exits, there's nothing there. It is a common complaint, especially in the area of education, that there is no real content on the Web. On most days, the Web appears to be an endless set of links to links to more links and even more links.

You all have a remarkable and highly valuable commodity on the Web--real content. Your libraries are full of this most precious resource in the world of the Web. My talk today will reinforce what we've already heard from Joy Hakim in a couple of ways. At VCDH we work on all of our projects with two principles in mind. First, we believe in letting students be their own historians. We want to give students and others access to the materials of the past, allowing them to engage in the process of doing history. For too long history's methods have been absent without leave from our classrooms. It's time, we feel, to restore the methodology of history to the center of the classroom experience. The web allows us to accomplish that by providing access to materials that only researchers, scholars, and librarians had access to previously. Second, we at VCDH are trying to democratize history with our projects. We want to do this in two ways--by giving all access to the materials of history and by including all in the story of the past. Most of projects are broadly social in their historical objectives, including as many as possible in the investigation of the subject. So, the Civil War, for example, happened to not just to soldiers and generals but to women and men, blacks and whites, poor and rich, children and adults. We want to capture the experience of as many as possible in our work.

In the popular movie Field of Dreams the main character hears voices telling him "build it and they will come." At first, he is puzzled and wonders, build what? Finding the answer to this question is the point of the movie, and finally the hero realizes that he is to build a baseball diamond for the ghosts of baseball's past. Strangely, the movie does not turn on who "will come" when it is built.

The mantra "build it and they will come" seems to be the clarion call of the World Wide Web. Businesses are throwing huge resources at this field of dreams, pushing "ecommerce" and advertising every product on the web. Some universities are striving to have a web site for every course, and libraries are rushing to digitize their collections. The Internet is growing daily with millions of users coming online every year. As the rush to build on the World Wide Web pushes universities in new directions , we might pause to consider who comes to these web sites and what audiences we are reaching.

While some observers glorify the Web as an open, democratic, and inviting place where old inequities disappear, others disparage it as nothing more than an atomized junk-heap where "no authority is 'privileged' over any other." Still others fear th at the Web will reinforce already deep divisions between rich and poor, cutting off many students from information their wealthier peers have access to. A closer look at who uses history web sites might provide some basis on which to judge the Web's reach , its relative openness and availability, and its use by teachers and students. One email comment to the Valley of the Shadow Project came from an ambitious fourth-grade student: "Fax me everything you have on the Civil War!" Do only the fax-equipped have access to the Web or is the technology more open?

The Valley of the Shadow Project at the University of Virginia has been on the World Wide Web since 1993. The Project began under the direction of Edward L. Ayers as a research project at the University of Virginia before the Web existed in 1991 an d has grown into one of the largest history web sites. The Valley of the Shadow provides in interactive form sources for all of the people in a Northern county and a Southern county throughout the coming, fighting, and aftermath of the Civil War: newspape rs, census data, church records, military records, maps, and images. Its intended audience includes students and teachers at high schools, community colleges, and research universities, as well as researchers, genealogists, librarians, and anyone interest ed in the history of the Civil War. The Project can be found on the World Wide Web at

The success of the Valley of the Shadow Project led the University of Virginia to create a new center in 1998 dedicated to creating history on the World Wide Web. The Virginia Center for Digital History at U.Va. ( not only pro duces digital history but also disseminates it, teaches with it, and trains others to create new projects with its methods. VCDH is an incubator of strategies, techniques, and experiences for this new medium. Recent new projects at VCDH include Virtual Ja mestown, an African American History Project, and a project on modern Virginia history. A key aspect of the Center is its alliance with the Curry School of Education at U.Va. to disseminate its work to schools throughout the nation. As the Center works wi th secondary schools, it has become increasingly aware of the need to understand this particular audience and how to reach it.

The experience of the Valley of the Shadow Project reveals important patterns and lessons about Web audiences. Over the last two years the Valley Project has received over two million "hits" or accesses and has avera ged over 3,000 accesses per day. One access equals one requested page from the Valley Project site. In the fall of 1998 the Project began to average over 10,000 accesses each day and recently the Project has picked up even more traffic, averaging 12,000 a ccesses a day. Spikes of heavier usage of the Project site coincided with profiles of the site in major print publications. In March 1998, for example, a cover story in The Chronicle of Higher Education pushed accesses up to over 9,000 per day and the November 29, 1998, article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times produced a record number of accesses in a day for the Project--13,861--and almost 172 million bytes of data served to users.


Valley of the Shadow Project Accesses May 18, 1998 through September 18, 1998.

Accesses only tell us raw usage and almost nothing about who is visiting the Valley Project and where they are coming from. For that information we need to look more closely at the statistics the Project's sever compiles from all of the accesses ea ch day. The server counts the number of accesses and breaks them into categories organized by their domain name, that is whether the request came from a .com, .edu, .org, or other Internet address. On a day of heavy use in November, for example, the Valle y Project received requests from almost every category of the Internet--from businesses (.com), universities (.edu), military organizations (.mil), non-profit organizations (.org), government divisions (.gov), and from nearly all parts of the world, inclu ding South America, Asia, Africa, North America, Australia, and Europe. The Project received requests from every domain on the Internet except Antarctica.


For today's activity on the Valley Project click HERE.

































































Number of Accesses to the Valley of the Shadow Project by Domain on November 29, 1998.

The Valley Project's reach into high schools is difficult to track but not impossible. We wanted to find out how extensively schools and educational institutions used the Project. The large number of .com and .net addresses making requests migh t appear to indicate that the audience is not primarily students. Often, though, the most prevalent .com address making requests is, and we cannot tell whether the visitor is a student working on a research project at home or a Civil War buff surf ing the Web for new information. When we break down the largest volume of requests, we find that many visits to the Project come from schools and universities. We looked at a week in the life of the Valley Project, tracking all requests and grouping them by URL. Over the course of a week in September 1998 the Valley Project received large numbers of accesses from a California high school, a Wyoming high school, Harvard University, Stanford University, Arizona State University, a New Mexico community colle ge, Appalachian State University, and high schools in Minnesota and Indiana.

Accesses listed by site url for the Valley of the Shadow Project week of September 21-25, 1998. (Note: rank refers to the overall rank in number of accesses for that day--i.e. on 9/21/98 the place that made the most requests of the Valley Projec t was a high school in California)


Site URL




1 (California high school)



2 (Wyoming high school)



4 (James Madison University)



12 (Arizona State University)



14 (Virginia Tech)




1 (University of Richmond)



2 (California high school)



3 (East Tennessee State University)



14 (Appalachian State University)



21 (Pomfret School in Connecticut)



22 (community college in New Mexico)



39 (Arizona State University)



42 (Washington and Jefferson College)




4 (Harvard University)



11 (University of North Carolina--Greensboro)



17 (California high school)



22 (Lehigh University)




35 (Penn State University)



37 (Minnesota high school)




21 (Indiana high school)



37 (Depaul University)



40 (Stanford University)



The Valley Project appears to be a flexible teaching tool, finding a strong audience at such diverse institutions as Harvard University, a New Mexico community college, and a high school in Indiana. Few other educational materials, whether textbook s, teaching guides, or videos, are so widely used among different institutions and educational levels. The breadth of the audience suggests that the Web presents an open and democratic medium for history, that projects can reach students in very different schools, regions, and circumstances.

Obviously, the subject matter of the Civil War has wide appeal and brings a large amount of traffic. The Valley Project receives email comments from the site every day, usually from general viewers, not students or teachers. These comments also reveal the diversity of the Project's audience, as they come from all ages, races, classes, and genders. One recent email comment also demonstrated why the openness of the Web is so vital to its success: " As a black child growing up in Waynesboro Va. 1948 to 19 60 I've learned so very little about home, that your hard work has struck my heart and my heritage!! Thank you, Thank you, From my heart - Leon, Long Island, New York 8/98."

Since some of the biggest volume users of the site are schools and universities, the Valley Project has worked to meet the expectations of this particular audience. The Project built lesson plans for high school teachers and tied them to the Virginia S tandards of Learning and the National History Standards. Its staff visited dozens of schools, showing the Project to teachers and students, discussing technology and how to incorporate it into the classroom. The Project was showcased at major history conf erences, such as the American Historical Association and the Southern Historical Association meetings, and at social studies educators' conferences, widening the base of educators who have seen a demonstration of the Project. The Project's staff also keep s track of schools that use the project in their curriculum, providing email advice and technical support when necessary.

The years of work with the Valley Project have taught us many lessons that the Virginia Center for Digital History plans to learn from. Digital history has been full of surprises, even apparent paradoxes. A medium that might seem to distance people fro m one another instead demands kinds of cooperation and collaboration that traditional scholarship discourages. Though digital history demands labor on the scale of large editing projects, it has turned out to be quite cost effective when the size and enth usiasm of the audience is taken into account. We have also learned that we must take active measures to disseminate digital history projects, such as the Valley Project, that outreach programs--teaching materials, workshops, on-site visits, and teacher fe llowships--provide absolutely essential services. We can no more expect computer-based scholarship to teach itself than we expect books to teach themselves. While schools of education are now teaching courses on social studies technology, there are hundre ds of thousands of teachers who are having computers thrust upon them with no preparation. Not surprisingly, many of those teachers ignore or even resist the intrusive machinery and wonder about the wisdom of spending valuable resources on that machinery.

The Valley Project is currently working with the Curry School of Education to document further how schools are using the Project. Educators are testing the Project in schools across the nation, working with lesson plans and learning modules created at our Center, and monitoring the effectiveness of the Project on student learning. As historians our work at the Center is devoted to building the Project, but we need the help of professional educators to test and evaluate the material. We hope to learn fr om the Curry School's work how to reach the high school audience more effectively.

The Valley Project was built to work in research institutions, colleges, universities, libraries, high schools, and for a general audience. We found that collaboration and outreach have helped us reach each of these audiences. Trips to schools, present ations at professional conferences, continuing education seminars, and local history programs were all essential to building an audience for the Project. If the Web is going to be an open space where all have access to the same sophisticated information, where there are few barriers to exploration and knowledge, and where previously distant audiences come together, it needs to be cultivated in a manner intended to produce these results.