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Copyright 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University

Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.

So far in this course, we have used computers to store, organize and analyze your data. This lesson looks at some ways to present the results of your research using computers. They range from writing a paper, to creating a searchable database, programming a game simulation, or constructing a Powerpoint or web-based presentation. Each of these methods can present information to an audience, but they differ in terms of the amount of control they offer your audience over the order in which they see your results, how they are formatted, and how much detail is available.

Written paper: One way to present your research is by writing a scholarly paper. Although that approach has been around since long before there were computers, word processing software can make it easier to write, check for spelling errors, and include pictures. A written paper gives the author complete control over the order of presentation and the format of the contents. It is a bit more limited when it comes to presenting details, because if it includes too much, a reader may not be able to determine what is essential and what is merely "interesting." Written papers are also limited in the kinds of content it can convey -- no sound clips or video.

A written paper can convey extremely complex arguments, however, because it offers a reader the chance to reread things that aren't clear, and to look up things that are unfamiliar. It is particularly well-suited for presenting a historical argument because a good argument is linear; i.e. it makes logical points in a particular order. The reader can skip around while reading the paper, but the argument's order is clear from the way the paper is written. [NOTE: Like a written paper, an oral presentation is also linear, but a listener cannot "reread" earlier parts during the presentation. All listeners can do is wait until the end to ask questions.]

Other types of computer presentations give the audience more control over the order in which they receive information. For instance, Powerpoint presentations and their web-based equivalents can include links that allow the viewer to choose a "path" through the data. For example, this slide from a Powerpoint presentation includes links to move forward and backwards, plus a third link that allows the viewer to "zoom in" on a topic and view "more detail."

1. Foundation of West Chester
2. Railroad Construction
3. Market Agriculture
4. Export Industry
5. Diverse Economy
6. Effect of World Wars
7. Effect of the Depression
8. Transition to Services
Previous topic More detail Next topic

By varying the number of links and their destinations, the presenter gets to balance encouragment for exploration against the urge to make a specific argument about the data. In the example to the right, web hyperlinks give immediate access to the names of the sources that the writer used. They could just as easily lead directly to notes taken from the sources, or to the sources themselves, as this example shows.

Using LINKS to provide detail

Excerpt from Made in West Chester

The stock market started its collapse in the last week of October 1929. On November 12, the day before the market bottomed out,(29) the Sharples Milker Company filed for bankruptcy.(30) A month later, Fred Wood, now the company vice president,(31) told a reporter that the federal government needed to raise tariffs against European imports.(32) The national economy continued to decline -- the industrial index reached its lowest point on July 8, 1932(33) -- and on March 29, 1933, Philip M. Sharples asked a judge to place the Sharples Separator Company into bank receivership, claiming it owed him $495,000.(34)

Fred Wood and E. Raymond Scott, the former president of the Chester County Trust Company, were appointed to liquidate the company,(35) and they sold most of the factory buildings to the ESCO Cabinet Company of West Chester.(36) The Daily Local News purchased the F&M Building for only $40,000 )it cost &100,000 to build)(37) and Celia Hoffman of Philadelphia bought the Greentree Building.(38) Wood and his personal secretary, Anna Fitzpatrick, salvaged what they could and used it to found the United Dairy Equipment Company.(39)


For people with programming skills, there are a number of ways to add ease of access, direction and even entertainment value to a computer-based history presentation. Most spreadsheet and database programs offer internal programming languages that enable you to replace the row-column format with something more user-friendly. For example, think of the information in a telephone book. You could write a program that accepts a name or address, then looks up the nearest neighbors, grocery stores, other businesses and schools, and then presents something like this:

YOU ASKED ABOUT:         Jos*     Doe

Joseph A. Doe lives at 123 Pine Street. Other people at that address are: Jean B. Doe, Ebenezer R. Doe, Elizabeth D. Walker

The nearest neighbors are:

121 Pine Street: William Smith, Alice Smith, [etc.]
122 Pine Street: [list of names]
124 Pine Street: [list of names]
125 Pine Street: [list of names]
The nearest grocery stores are at 100 Pine Street, 201 Pine Street, 302 4th Street.

Other nearby businesses are a barber shop (101 Pine Street), hair dresser (301 4th Street), locksmith (303 4th Street), vacuum cleaner sales (241 2nd Street).

The nearest public school is Harley Elementary school (432 Sequoia Street). There are no middle schools listed in the directory. There are no high schools listed in the directory.

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One of the more elaborate ways to present a historical model is through the use of game programming. In the early days of computer games, "text adventures" used words to describe a landscape and populate them with characters, just like a historical model involving actors in a location. The "game" element gave the player rules on how to move through the landscape and an objective to encourage motion in a specific direction. In a historical presentation, the objective is the "conclusion" of the argument and the rules are those of logic -- especially cause-and-effect -- but also deduction and inference.

Consider a commercially available game like Civilization. Winners must create the right mix of war, trade, learning and food production to"grow" a successful society. The "right mix" is defined by the program itself, based on rules like "a larger population makes a larger army possible." As a historian, you task is to choose the rules and justify them by citing historical precedent. In this case, there are plenty of precedents for more populous societies using larger armies to overwhelm smaller enemies, like the United States versus Japan or the Soviet Union versus Germany, both in World War II. The number of rules that you can use and justify determines the sophistication of your project.

Game programming is beyond the scope of this course, but it relies on the same principles that apply to all computer presentations. They consist of a body of historical data and a theoretical model to organize that data. They also require a program -- a control mechanism -- to determine how an audience receives the data. The program controls several variables: how linear the presentation is, how much control the audience gets, and how much detail the presentation provides.

Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.