Who Killed William Robinson? Race, Justice and Settling the Land
Created and maintained by John Lutz and Ruth Sandwell, Humanities Computing Media Centre at the University of Victoria, 1997-2008
The Who Killed William Robinson? site is one part of a larger web project, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History, which at this time hosts six historical "mysteries" as well as other resources for intermediate and high school students and their teachers. This site focuses on the murder of William Robinson, a black American murdered in British Columbia in 1868. The originators of the site include Ruth Sandwell, Assistant Professor in the history program in the Dept. of Theory and Policy Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, and John Lutz, Associate Professor of History at the University of Ontario, along with a large team.
Although it could be used for a number of age or interest groups, the site is designed to be a sort of window for students to learn what it really means to do the work of a historian by allowing them to interact with original documents, ask questions, and draw their own conclusions. As such, the site is at its core a deliberately designed, selective archive. It holds over 100 images and even more documents, all of which can help students to examine the both larger period and the individual situation of Robinson's life and death. There are also teacher's guides and recommended resources for further study. After describing the mystery, the site further describes:
"This web site then is not just about William Robinson or about British Columbia. It is also about historical understanding. It allows you to look at the same documents that professional researchers look at to build their accounts. It allows you to interpret the raw material of the past and to ask the larger questions like, how do we know what happened in the past?"
The site is laid out sensibly, with a links bar across the top of the site leading to major divisions: Home (with introduction, teacher guides, and helps), The Murder, Historical Contexts, The Archives, and Interpretations. "The Murder" provides a general description, texts, and documents related directly to this case. "Historical Contexts" holds documents which give further background on the period as a whole, and "The Archives" contains links to the documents in the previous two categories, but grouped by type of document rather than by the sort of information they contain.
The documents and images, upon which the site really must stand or fall in terms of its stated purpose of introducing users to the work of a historian, are a strong and inclusive collection. Unfortunately, the collection is rather difficult to use. For instance, there are few visual cues which help the reader interpret the type of document that is appearing on screen. Because there are few images of texts — most documents have only transcriptions — a newspaper article looks remarkably similar to the judge's bench book, which also looks quite similar to the text in the introduction that was written by the site?s creators. Additionally, little or no explanation or context is given for documents, such as how newspapers at the time did their reporting, whether a certain newspaper was known for political leanings one way or the other, etc. Thus the student is given a large amount of very foreign-looking information with little instruction on how to use it. It is also disappointing that the many photographs and pieces of art included in the archive were not able to be enlarged very far. Although there are extensive teacher's guides and lesson plans through which instructors can certainly help students in understanding the sources they are seeing, the difficulty a user encounters when trying to understand the physical and historical context of each document is a large obstacle for the stated audience of this site.
The "Interpretations" section is protected by a password that is available through teacher materials?thus, a student using it does not have access to others' ideas until his or her teacher approves this step. (Interestingly, I tried to open it, was rejected because I did not have a password, and received a dialog box which told me that one percent had been deducted from my final grade.)
Overall, the goals and aims of this site are strong, and it clearly has a lot of potential for introducing students to historians? work. The "case" selected is interesting, and a unit of teaching in a school classroom would be quite beneficial for students. However, the site could be improved by making it easier to view and understand documents, and more enjoyable by allowing the user to enlarge images further.
As a side note, the site displayed differently depending on the way that I arrived: a Google search for "who killed william robinson?" brought me to a more image-based format which had fonts more reminiscent of the period. After clicking on the link to the Unsolved Mysteries page, however, I returned via one of their links and arrived at a site with the same information, but hosted under a different server and which had less appropriate fonts and fewer images. The color scheme and usability on both sites, however, seems equivalent.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2007