Project Reviews

Created and maintained by Kristi Barlow, Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, and Richard P. Rogers. Film Study Center, Harvard University; Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, 2000

"A site that shows you how to piece together the past from the fragments that have survived."

Overview is a creative historical experience built around Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's work on Martha Ballard, an American midwife from the Northeast. Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize winning text is the foundation for the site, yet the web site successfully draws the reader deeper into the story than the text does alone. This is quite a statement for an award winning historical work, but the quality of the interactive experience from the web site is fascinating.

The interest spawned at first by the book, then by the movie, pushed the producers to allow for further investigation for the public, and the web site is designed with that in mind. The Film Study Institute at Harvard University is credited for the site, but no main author is listed for the web site although it is based on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's work, A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Instead, the producers and directors of the movie, A Midwife's Tale, are cited as creating the web page.

It would be simple for the web page to promote the book and the movie, but the site is designed to stand alone from either. Instead of extensive citation of the text, the reader encounters multiple levels of interaction with the life of Martha Ballard. Through the initial interface, the user is encouraged to refine their goals for using the site: investigating Martha Ballard, pursuing midwifery, or delving into the historian's craft. The user then can not just use the site to get a summary of the text, instead is urged to go deeper into history.

There are two aspects of the site that deserve highlighting for their innovation. The first is the historian's toolbox. In this part of the site, Ulrich explains her historical methodology in investigating Martha Ballard. She explains handwriting analysis, investigating graveyards, how to search deeds and probate records. In addition, there are printable forms for anyone interested in doing history can use in their historical research.

The other aspect of the site that deserves special mentioning is under the "dohistory" section. In this portion of the website, the user is confronted with "One rape, two stories." Martha Ballard recorded the rape of Rebecca Foster, the young minister's wife, by Joseph North, a local judge. The official record of the court also records the rape. The user is walked through the difficult task of deciding what "really" happened through investigating the available documents. Instead of the site resolving the question, the user is forced to make their own decision, revealing the difficulty of writing history.


Encouraging the pursuit of history, whether personal through genealogy, or public through broad studies, this site is a welcome addition. There are indeed valuable resources found in the site, most notably, a digital copy of the entire diary of Martha Ballard. This site might be termed as an interactive historical experience with multiple levels of interaction, moving beyond a primer level to include deep historical experiences with text, original documents, video and audio resources. Supplemental resources are also in the site including 300 primary source documents to place the diary in context rather than as a simple artifact. These supporting materials greatly add to the usefulness of the site.

It is obvious that this site was constructed by more than just historians in the field, opening up their research. This site appeared ten years after the publication of A Midwife's Tale and twenty years after Ulrich first started the project. The supporting historical information is fantastic and intricately tied into the larger work. The site has an easy accessibility with a nice flow for the historical professional as well as the novice.

That said, the drawback of the site is in the digital collection. The digital archive is directly tied to the Martha Ballard diary, allowing the user to peruse what Ulrich found most useful in supporting the diary. The users are restricted by low resolution of the images and selected enlargements of maps. The digital collection is aided by an option to "view text" or "view image" allowing for ease of reading, but restricted by limited interactivity with the text, confined to the selections of historical books rather than the entire text.

This site is a magnificent example of what can be done to enrich users experience with historical writing, encouraging historical reading and research while exposing the under-layers of historical writing to review.

Robert Voss
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: April 2007