Where to Read History on the Web

Rebecca Onion’s favorite places to find great stories, scholarship, and artifacts.

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Map,Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Map courtesy Library of Congress

Photo illustration by Slate. Illustration by Charlie Powell. Map courtesy Library of Congress.

As Slate’s history writer and Vault blogger, I am constantly looking for history on the Web. Some of this browsing is purely image-based—I scan tweets, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, blogs, and digital archives to spot things that might work well on the Vault, which is primarily a visual blog. But I’m also always hunting for good history writing. Here, I’d like to recommend some of the sites I visit to find things to read—pieces and posts often (though not always) written by academic historians who want to reach a broader audience with their research. 

Common-place, a long-running digital project that covers American history before 1900, calls itself “[a] bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine.” As a historian of 20th-century America with a grass-is-greener affection for anything that happened before “my” time, I find pretty much everything Common-place publishes fascinating.

I particularly like the Object Lessons column, which discusses items like the ribbon George Washington wore when he took command of the Continental Army; interviews with scholars about their new books, like this one with Denver Brunsman about his work on British naval impressment; and the new First Person feature, where historians experiment with trying to “feel” the past through re-enactments and immersive experiments, then write about the results. (The first installment is about three scholars who endured a voyage on a 19th-century whaling ship.)

The pieces are generally written by scholars, and some of them can feel a little insider-y at first glance. Nor does Common-place skimp on word count: Philip C. Mead’s piece on George Washington’s ribbon comes to more than 8,000 words, with copious notes and suggestions for further reading. (Compare that with the typical 300-word Vault post.) But there’s a light touch to it all, and interesting images to leaven the mix. Slate recently republished a fascinating essay that first appeared in Common-place, on the deed that transferred title to Staten Island from Munsee Indians to the colony of New York.

The Junto, a group blog run by historians of early America that takes its name from the discussion group a young Ben Franklin founded in 1727, publishes more frequently and is more responsive to current cultural controversies than Common-place (while covering some of the same historical territory). On this blog you might find historians’ perspectives on Django Unchained, the early American “War on Christmas,” and the Web comic the Oatmeal’s popular anti-Columbus Day installment.

The Junto runs some features that may or may not be interesting to people who aren’t steeped in the field (the bloggers carry out an entertaining March Madness tournament that pits scholarly books against each other), but there’s a fun feeling to the prose—many of the people involved know each other well and are friends—that goes a long way toward fostering a feeling of accessibility.

We’re History, a site with an attractive design that makes for a clean reading experience, is edited by historians, but its general policy seems to be to avoid discussions of historiography. The pieces are about what happened, not about how scholars have discussed what happened.

There are featured columns—This Day in History and History Behind the News—but I tend to like the one-off pieces best: Ben Railton on popular culture’s embrace of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Joshua Rothman on the way author William Wells Brown’s year of enslavement as a slave trader’s assistant affected him in later life; or Alan Rogers’ explainer-y piece on the way American women earned the right to serve on juries (a milestone that occurred weirdly late in the 20th century).

Two blogs about intellectual history—the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History and the newer African American Intellectual History Society blog—have in-depth, careful posts about the history of American thought. The S-USIH blog has one of the only really good comments sections on the Web. The academic historians who comment on each other’s posts are smart, prepared, and thoughtful, writing long and complicated responses that often inform later posts, so there’s a real sense of developing conversation.

The AAIHS’s blog illuminates a subfield that gets very little attention in history class or public discussions. Reading this blog is a good way to remedy that gap. Examples: A recent series on the centennial of the United States occupation of Haiti in 1915, written by Brandon Byrd, shows how Haitian and black American intellectuals, who had long tried to reconcile the ideal of Haiti with the actuality of its politics, received that event as it was happening. And a Marcia Watson post about school desegregation contrasts the views of Mary McLeod Bethune and Zora Neale Hurston on the Brown v. Board decision, showing how black opinion on that milestone was far from unified.

Frequent readers of the Vault may have noticed that I sometimes post documents found on the Public Domain Review, a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation, which wants to expose public-domain materials to readers of the Web (and, in the process, make the argument that more stuff should be in the public domain).

The site’s document collections are visually striking and eclectic, but I want to sing the praises of the essay section. Here, scholars and others write about public domain materials, and the articles are lavishly illustrated. The pieces regularly introduce me to archives or stories I hadn’t heard about before. See Alicia Puglionesi on the practice of auto-experimentation, which informed the theory behind homeopathic medicine; Mark Kaufman on a DIY guide to espionage written in 1915 by Robert Baden-Powell, British founder of the Boy Scouts; or Keith Heidorn on Wilson Bentley, “the Snowflake Man of Vermont,” a gentle obsessive who took thousands of photographs of snowflakes between 1885 and 1931.

I also like the PDR’s monthly Curator’s Choice post, which asks a curator from a gallery, library, museum, or archive to walk the reader through a collection. (Here’s a sample post that’s timely, given the recent centennial of the Armenian Genocide: Julia Grimes of the Getty Research Institute introduces images from a collection of photographs of Armenian life in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire.)

One final recommendation: The three-year-old journal the Appendix, which once operated as a quarterly digital publication with a companion site online, has been on hiatus and is slowly winding down as its graduate-student editors have gotten jobs and become otherwise occupied. This is sad, but the good thing is, the archives of the journal and the blog are about historical subjects, so are mostly evergreen. (Disclosure: I have written for the Appendix in the past, and have several friends on its staff.)

The Appendix was all about blending creative nonfiction and historical writing, and its site incorporates sound, photography, and video clips in interesting ways. Try Christopher Heaney’s interview with historical writer Adam Hochschild; Amy Kohout’s 2013 meditation on the experience of looking at a bald eagle that had been killed and preserved in 1874 by one of her historical research subjects; or Glenda Goodman on the role of songs and singing in the captivity narrative of Deerfield, Massachusetts, Rev. John Williams.

This highly subjective list leaves behind the blogs produced by archives and museums; solo blogs run by historians (of which there are many—too many to mention!); and media projects like the New York TimesDisunion blog and Lapham’s Quarterly’s website. Also, I’m an American studies Ph.D., and it shows in what I read—mostly, writing about American history.

If you want more subject-specific recommendations for history writing on the Web, or if you want to tell me about non-Americanist blogs or projects I should be following, please let me know in the comments, or get in touch.