This week we were given a selection of sites to choose from and instructed to write a review of the one we chose. Our review was supposed to be 500-700 words long and needed to follow the Journal of American History and History Matters guidelines. My submission is below.
The content of this site revolves around a decades worth of daily writings from Samuel Pepys, a 17th century civil servant living in London. By presenting each day separately, the user is given a new dynamic way of interacting with a primary source. Over the first decade of the site, users were able to follow Pepys life in the same way they would a popular blogger or friend. Today, the decade long cycle of Pepys writings are once again in rotation, attracting new and old readers alike.
It is important to note that the site was created not by a historian, but rather a technologist. Phil Gyford has created a variety of web projects and has been involved with many organizations throughout his career. He has a Masters degree in the fascinating sounding “Studies of the Future” from the University of Houston. Perhaps Gyford’s basis outside of a traditional historic focus is what allowed him to create a site that is much more than just a digital version of a 17th century man’s diary.
The form of the site is simplistically modern at the moment. Using the Wayback Machine, one can see that over the past eleven years the site has gone through several iterations in form. Throughout the changes, however, simplicity seems to have reigned. The focus is always on the text; other than the addition of a header featuring Pepys’ portrait, the site doesn’t prominently feature any images, either then or now. The main page is composed of the diary entries. Through the menu and through hyperlink-ed text within the diary entries the user can access a variety of other areas of the site that each add a layer of further information.
The intended audience seems to be quite broad. The use seems to be primarily entertainment with a side of education. The primary diary entries remain almost entirely true to the 19th century transcription of Pepys diary, which is available through Project Gutenberg, and could certainly be used for scholarly research.
New Media Aspects
What makes The Diary of Samuel Pepys stand out among digital projects of an historical nature is the level of involvement from users. The simple, yet deep, level of audience engagement is possible through an adept use of new media technology.
First, annotations can be added for each daily diary entry. This allows the readers to discuss the day’s content and create connections between previous entries. New annotations continue to be added daily. Debates over the use of certain words, their historical meanings, and Pepys intentions of use are one example of the rich discussion created in these areas of the site.
The site also features an “Encyclopedia” section that gives relevant information about people, places, and events mentioned in the diary. The Encyclopedia is similarly composed of annotations by users of the site. Each entry has a “References” tab that guides users to the pertinent diary entries. Some of these entries also make use of other digital tools, like maps locating relevant places with historic maps overlaid for a fuller understanding of the surrounding area.
Finally, in terms of audience involvement in the site, longer essays and articles on Pepys and other germane topics. These articles provide a fuller narrative aspect to the site than the diary entries alone. One of these articles, “The Next Chapter of Samuel Pepys” by Jeannine Kerwin indicates the real level of engagement created by the site in its brief description: “Dedicated to Phil Gyford and the community he created: to friends made along the way and to those who have left us.”
Certain days also incorporate information from other sites; for example, weather information, local goings on in a nearby town with a loose connection to Pepys life, or other newsworthy items. These additional snippets of information are included to the right of the pertinent entry. The user can click on each day’s entry, rather than viewing them from the home page, to find this additional information. (Edit: I initially thought this feature was gone. After a comment from the site’s creator, Phil, I realized however that I had simply not clicked through to the specific days, only looked at the post aggregation on the front page or jumped right to the annotations section on each entry. Happily, I stand corrected and this neat feature is still available.)
An early adopter of Twitter, Pepys entered the realm of social media in 2008. Tweeting from @samuelpepys, snippets of Pepys day are shared throughout the day. Undoubtedly the continued maintenance of the site and of Pepys’ social media presence helps the site continue to draw in interested users over a decade after its start.