Project Reviews

Virtual Jamestown
Created and maintained by Crandall A. Shifflett, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, University of Virginia, and the Virginia Center for Digital History

Virtual Jamestown is an ambitious site that already offers a wealth of material and continues to grow.

Because it has so much to offer in many different places in its site, one necessary thing it lacks from the beginning is a definitive statement to those less in the know as to what the site is about and what it is trying to accomplish. The site is about the early seventeenth century Jamestown Colony in North America, yes. But what specifically? What years? What aspects? The About page of the site lets users know that the site has won some prestigious awards and that it is powered by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Research Project and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. There is also a Teaching Materials section in the site that has all sorts of good stuff to help teachers. A layperson who knows little about Jamestown is best off starting there, but there should probably be a bit more up front on the site to give a basic rundown of what the site is trying to do.

Upon entering the site from the splash page, users can see a basic rundown of categories on the left. Public records, court records (these are actually soon to be available, the site says), labor contracts - there are all kinds of documents to work with, often with photographed copies of the actual documents to go along with the transcribed versions.

There are about twenty total maps on the site, including primary source maps and modern maps. Unfortunately, even when the user clicks on "Larger Image" in order to see what the maps are showing, they the keys and finer details to the maps are still usually too small. The maps seem like they would be of terrific use - if only the site would show them in the necessary detail. Also, there is an "Image" section on the site with about 13 different images that have to do with Jamestown, although only one as of yet has adequate labeling. For example, there is one image entitled "Arrival of Lord del Warr," which seems to indicate the arrival of some important European to Jamestown. The image seems to show a photographed reenactment of some sort, but there is no way of telling.

Some of the directories on the site could be better labeled. For example, with the categories on the left of the main page, a user can select "Newspapers," an excellent source of primary documents. The next page leaves only one option to click on, a link to a different site entitled "The Geography of Slavery in Virginia." Granted, the site uses newspapers from eighteenth and nineteenth century Virginia. Specifically, it uses advertisements for runaway and captured slaves from such newspapers. If I knew that were going to be the case, I might have liked to have just seen a link for "Slave Advertisements" on the main page of the Virtual Jamestown rather than simply "Newspapers." Of course, the Jamestown site is very much a work in progress, so perhaps the designers will continue to add other kinds of relevant journalistic materials.

The site itself is fairly easy to navigate if not a tad unorthodox. Each page has a list of links to click on one side and in the middle there is usually a colorful text box of some sort (usually green), often with too-small texts and sometimes with fonts that are inconsistent from one page to the next. It is also annoying that a user cannot simply just look at some of the documents that the site has to offer. For example, a user cannot simply just look at the site's registers of indentured servants contracts but instead must conduct a search. Having a search option is great, but is it not possible to simply browse through the registers without specifying the name of a person?

Overall, the site has some obvious design flaws. And yet, it is still a remarkable site using an topic that one would think would be ideal for digital history. The site is relatively easy to navigate. It has - and will have - a wealth of materials and sources from which users can observe and learn. It makes use of a wide variety of media to present itself (including video interviews of Dr. Julie Solometo, who discusses Chesapeake Indians at length). This is probably a B+ or A- site with loads of potential. As its designers continue to gather source materials and figure out better and better ways to present those materials, Virtual Jamestown could become a great model for how to do digital history.

Sam Herley
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: Spring 2007