Sunday, November 22, 2009

Website Review: The Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society., The Lower Merion Historical Society. November 2009.

The Lower Merion Historical Society aims to promote community involvement in the preservation of local cultural resources. Their website states this is accomplished “by stewardship of local history, education of the community, preservation of historic resources and outreach to promote awareness of the cultural heritage of the Township of Lower Merion.” The Society's website is divided into two sections, one focusing on the society itself, the other on the collections and archives of the Society. As can be noted from the mission of the Society and the content of the site, the main audience is not the scholar or academic, rather the historically interested citizens of Lower Merion.
The site has a significant quantity of useful and relevant resources, particularly for those interested in family and area history. This includes artifact collections, collections of individuals, burial records, atlases, maps, historic photographs and significant Quaker collections. The photographs are digitized, but the rest of the collections are not, so searches of these collections provide identifying information such as call numbers and abstracts, but one must still go to the collections. For being directed at the amateur historian, the navigation of the site and research tools leave much to be desired. Despite sections entitled “How to Research” and “Search Tips”, the search interface is difficult to navigate even for a seasoned researcher, and the explanations are too long and too text driven. More concise and visually friendly directions (something other than blocks of black text on white backgrounds) would aid the user. The site could improve navigation to ensure a user's ability to return to the main page without having to retype the URL. The navigation is also not coherent. The site currently tells no distinct narrative nor promotes any particular interpretation of the area's past. A coherent narrative could introduce a user to the wide array of resources available and encourage involvement and preservation through increase historical engagement.
Despite these issues, the site provides access to intriguing and useful information. This is particularly true of the digitized photographs of mansions and architecture. A signficiant part of the society's site is dedicated to these themes (mansions are a significant part of Lower Merion's history) and its website is useful to research these structures and architects. It allows for quick access to photos and relevant information without having to pay the Society's librarian or make an appointment to pull the folio. This is particularly useful for the user with some interest in one particular place, but not necessarily a hobbyist invested in historical research of old homes.
While the site attempts to engage current issues through their online newsletter, the site lacks current historical civic engagement. There is no mention of big news items such as the recent destruction of an architecturally significant mansion in the area. The fight for this building and its destruction garnered significant press due to the society's involvement and the actions of Lower Merion preservationists, but is not included anywhere on the site. The Society could utilize these current events to bolster their mission of increased awareness of the township's resources. The Society has significant resources and their photography and map collections are impressive. These current events and photographs could be utilized in the design to create a cohesive narrative and entice casual users to do further research and engage history.

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