Midterm: Salem Witch Trials

Brett Mele & Georgia Miller



Digital Humanities Midterm


Evaluation of Salem Witch Trials Archive

The Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project is a collection and transcription of primary source documents that originated during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. This project improves upon the current records of the trials through the provision of new transcriptions which may uncover more about the past. This project will immortalize primary sources, records, books, and maps about the Salem Witch Trials. It ensures that the events of 1692 won’t be forgotten in the larger context of history. In addition, an important part of the scholarship is the process of making the Salem Witch Trials, not just the outcome of the archive or the transcriptions. Due to the importance of process in the transcription and collection of sources, there is an opportunity for growth after the process is completed. Many different archives, libraries, and historical societies participated in the archiving process which has resulted in multiple sources of funding and grants that will sustain the project.

The project pushes the state of knowledge of the Salem Witch Trials forward through the discovery of new information and the collection of past data. The redone transcriptions of court records contain corrections on the Salem Witchcraft Papers from 1977, the original transcriptions of the court records. In addition, the online collection contains multiple types of 17th Century documents, a collection of different historical maps, a list of notable actors in the trials, selected literary works, and holdings from various archives. The information surrounding the trials is well rounded and multi dimensional and has room for extension. In addition, the project appears to be well-funded which should ensure the sustainability the archive.

The goal of the project is to organize and compile relevant information on the Salem Witch Trials in a systematic fashion. The primary research question is: How do all of the maps, documents, and people surrounding the Salem Witch Trials fit together and how are they relevant to history? In addition, what does the historical context say about the events that occurred?

The design of the project is easy to navigate; however, the site is outdated and could use an upgrade. The interface appears to be from many years ago although the different categories of research topics are all color coded which is useful for the user. The ‘Project Mission’ and ‘Project Information’ sections all contain relevant information on the background and funding of the project. Within the ‘Documents & Transcription’ section, the original version and the new transcription, where necessary, are pictured. The ‘Historical Map’ section provides maps that allow the user to zoom for closer inspection. Most of the maps have keys as well as a small amount of text that explains what they are depicting. The ‘Archival Collections’ section provides scanned pictures of the manuscripts from various libraries. This is interesting, however, there are no translations so it is almost impossible to garner information from the large quantity of manuscripts. Lastly, there is a section on ‘Notable People’ to the trials which I find to be one of the most important. There is a small description as well as a full essay available. Overall, the project design is decently organized and easy to navigate if the user knows what they are looking for but it does not provide many different modes of navigation or a fun experience for the user.

For the front-end, the site looks like it uses basic HTML or some other web design program. The copyright date is 2002, and it does not look like any of the technology has been updated since then.On the back-end, the project employs a number of unique technologies, particularly to map the sites of the exact location of the witch trials. Benjamin Ray and his team of researchers used Global Information Systems (GIS) technology to digitally map the Salem area. Additionally, the project needs some sort of database to store all of the documents.

The front-end technology creates a working display for the archive and provides a means for navigation. For the back-end, the scholars use the technology to create the unique content for the archive. For example, the GIS mapping is used to create interactive maps based on originals that detail all the witch accusations in Salem at the time.

The project succeeds in increasing knowledge about the Salem Witch trials. It compiles numerous primary documents including maps, books, images and more. The project also succeeded in their transcription, as the primary documents are now available on a digital forum. Additionally, the interactivity of some of the maps is a successful feature of the project; it allows users to gain an overview of the topic without having to sift through all of the documents.

Despite some successes, the project has room for improvement. For an outside user, the information is not organized well enough to get substantial value. Some links lead to transcribed letters with little context, and some lead to messy original manuscripts. Overall, the project needs tying together. The broad categories on the homepage lead to a confusing array of documents in most cases. There needs to be more of a breakdown so the user gets a sense of the significance of each primary source.

As the project director, Benjamin Ray assumes the responsibility for the outcome of the project. However, he employed a number of other scholars and many things had to work in his favor along the way. Under the project staff link, over 30 researchers were responsible for different aspects of the project, which includes those in charge of transcription, database design, GIS mapping and more. All of these pieces had to come together cohesively for the project to work. Additionally, Ray needed to acquire proper funding for the project to work, which it seems like he secured due to the support of a few different organizations, including the University of Virginia Scholar’s Lab. Despite the fact that it took such a collaborative effort to get the project off the ground, I would say the ultimate success or failure of the project falls on Ray, simply because he assumed the responsibility of overseeing the entire project, which should include making sure all the other researchers are doing adequate work.

From the rubric, the criteria that matter most in this project include: research question, maintenance and sustainability, navigation, presentation, academic importance, credibility, argument, accessibility and organization. Of these, the project does a below average job in navigation, presentation and organization. The site feels clunky, the presentation is not uniform throughout, and as the project needs to better organize its content. The project scores average for accessibility and maintenance, and scores above average on the other categories. It asks an interesting research question, and in its answering provides new information on the subject of the Witch Trials. All of the scholars involved in the project hold degrees from top institutions, and the project is well funded, so there is no questioning the credibility of the website. In sum, based on the created rubric, this project rates as above average, but not higher due to the key drawbacks previously discussed.