Monday, February 11, 2008

A Review of the Chevy Chase Historical Society's Web Site

History as a discipline is most effective when it helps a person to not only solve current day problems but to also understand the people, forces, ideas and events that brought a particular person, place or thing into existence. Due to the many resources brought forth by the information revolution historical research has never been easier. However, while the tools have never been better the question still remains, what is the best way to present and learn" history?”

In an effort to answer this question I reviewed the web site of the Chevy Chase Historical Society (CCHS). Despite what many people in places like Indiana think, Chevy Chase is not just the name of a washed up comedian but the moniker of one of our nation’s first authentic suburbs. I grew up there and I chose the sight because I felt uniquely qualified to judge the efficacy of the site in terms of its ability to relate the history of a place that I was infinitely familiar with (My mother still lives on Shepherd St).

Due to a lack of money and resources many local history web sites are amateurish affairs that make some attempt to tell the history of their town or region but in the end don’t really have enough substance to be considered truly credible. The CCHS site is certainly not as substantive as the Smithsonian web site but for a small town web page it does a wonderful job of compiling a wide range of materials that do an excellent job of telling the story of one of our nation’s first suburbs.

The “splash page” has just the right mix of photos, artifacts and text. It attracts the viewer without overwhelming them with memorabilia. Most importantly it lets you know right away that the site is updated frequently. The initial selections are about what you would expect namely: GET TO KNOW US, LEARN ABOUT CHEVY CHASE and RESEARCH YOUR HISTORY. But the proof that it is a "living"website becomes clear in the next three categories SEE WHAT'S NEW, ATTEND AN EVENT and finally READ OUR NEWSLETTER. A peek at these categories makes it clear that they are not window dressing; most of the entries were about things that had occurred in the recent past or were about to occur in the near future.

But while the site speaks to the present day, in the end a history web site should be about history. There were no financial figures but from the information listed the society appears to be a low budget operation. It is located in the basement of the Chevy Chase library and is staffed by volunteers. However despite its humble resources it does a wonderful job at compiling the history of the area. One of the best features is the ability to search their collection of photos and artifacts.

Having lived in the area for half of my life I decided to test this portion to see just how comprehensive it might be. As a child I had spent many an afternoon at the Chevy Chase Lake Swimming Pool. Unlike most pools it was literally almost as big as football field with a deep end that rivaled the Mariana Trench. The pool was demolished in the late 70’s to make way for a retirement high rise. For years I had searched for a photo of the pool, all to no avail. Amazingly I found a wonderful picture of the place in the archive (see photo). In addition to the pool, I was also interested in seeing what they had on a place called “Clean Drinking Manor.” The aforementioned house and grounds was the site of a natural spring (The spring is still there) that many of the Founding Fathers to include Washington used to stop at on a frequent basis. Again I was impressed by the level of articles and information on the subject. In addition to the artifacts themselves it is important to note that there were excellent write-ups to go along with each historical item listed.

In short, the site passes what I like to call the Martian Test, meaning if a man from Mars wanted to know about Chevy Chase, the information would truly help him to understand what the place was like not only in the past, but in the present as well. For this reason I really enjoyed the page. It is living proof that you don’t need a fortune to run an effective history site on the web.

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