Web 2.0 Meets The Past at Footnote

Posted by Matthew Murphy on Thursday, July 12th, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I sat down to test drive Utah-based website Footnote. Imagine a mashup of Flickr + Diigo + a little of Genealogy.com for historical documents and you get some idea of the function. This simplified description doesn’t do justice to what you can actually do with Footnote, nor does it explain how I completely lost track of more than three hours of my day while exploring the site!

The Internet now is host to an amazing amount of historical text. Much of this is in the form of translated or transcripted text. A rather smaller number of sites, such as DScriptorium, enable you to view actual digitized historical documents. Footnote, however, takes this one step further. Through a huge partnership with NARA, and using their own software platform, Footnote allows you to view, annotate, share, and comment on millions of actual images of digitized primary historical documents.

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The Footnote collection consists of, at least for the moment, American historical documents. To view these documents, you must be a member. They offer both free and subscription memberships. With a free membership you are restricted to viewing only a portion of their collection. Go with a paid membership, $7.95 a month or $59.95 a year, and it’s like an annotation free-for-all through American history. According to their blog, their collection contains over 10.5 million documents. Personally, I didn’t feel limited by the free membership, though I can see the value of a subscription. This is one seriously slick tool for school teachers, families looking for genealogy info, students of any age, or anyone who is genuinely interested in learning more about American history. (How about getting rid of some cable channels for the summer and getting your kids a subscription to Footnote instead?)

So now that you’ve searched through millions of documents, made some annotations to help others along, and saved a few important images to your personal Gallery, what do you do next? You create your very own blog, hosted on Footnote, complete with images that you either saved in your Gallery or uploaded yourself. Footnote calls this a Story Page, and you can view one that I’ve created here. The Story Page offers you a familiar word processing-style (WYSIWYG) editor that allows you some control over the text of your entries. Your images, whether Footnote documents or uploaded images, show up as a miniature slideshow next to your text entry. Visitors can click on an image to open it in the document viewer and leave you comments just as they would on a traditional blog.

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My first experience with Footnote was, overall, a positive one. Setting up your account is a breeze. It takes just a few minutes of playing with the document viewer before you’ve mastered comments and annotations. As for setting up your own Story Page, Footnote walks you through that step by step. My only real gripe is the navigation, or rather the lack of navigation, between your search results, the document viewer, and your Gallery. Once you select a document from your search results, you are taken to the document viewer. You apparently have to start your search all over again in order to view the next document in your search results. (You could, of course, right-click and open each document in a new window or tab, but I think that’s sort of like cheating.) For such an image-heavy site, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to select and manipulate the images. Bearing in mind that the higher the quality of an image, the longer it will generally take to show up on your screen, I think that there is a good compromise between the load time and the image quality. Just don’t expect to be able to print your great-grandfather’s birth certificate and pass it off as the real thing!

So far, I’ve only scratched the surface of Footnote, and Footnote itself is still rather fledgling. By allowing anyone out there to interact with actual primary historical documents and relate them to their lives by finding little known histories, relationships, and creating their own Story Pages, I think that Footnote has broken some new ground here. Where else does Web 2.0 meet The Past so gracefully? If the community element takes off, I think that Footnote will have a future to look forward to that is exciting as the history it makes accessible to all of us.