Back in 1997, when the Internet was still young and good content was hard to find, one of the first websites to start producing quality information about the Middle Ages was http://historymedren.about.com/
Under the direction of Melissa Snell, this website has offered news, resources and links about the medieval period. Although the site has a blog, it is more a guide for students and readers interested in the Middle Ages.
We interviewed Melissa Snell to ask her about her experience in running this website:
How did you get involved in doing the medieval history section for About.com?
In January of 1997 I moved out to the country to take care of my disabled mom, and I started looking for work I could do from home. My first move was getting on the Internet; I’d surfed the web before, but now, having 24-hour access led to an explosion of learning. While I paid my way with a little freelance web design and some online marketing, for fun and personal growth I spent most of my time investigating websites on medieval studies, especially those posted by professors for their students.
In August I answered an ad on Yahoo Classifieds for writers. I was invited to check out this relatively new website called The Mining Co. and see what topics were available. I noticed that their history coverage at the time, which was arranged chronologically, jumped from Ancient/Classical History (guided then, as now, by N.S. Gill) to the 1700s. I’d just spent several months enjoying medieval websites of all kinds, so I proposed Medieval History as a topic. I wrote an “audition” article and selected interesting websites to showcase, and I was hired as the Medieval/Renaissance History Guide.
Scott Kurnit, the founder of the Mining Co., changed its name to About.com a few years later.
You have been working with About.com on developing website materials since 1997. What are your impressions of the online world has changed in the last 12 years and how it has effected the way you write your blog?
The sheer number of Internet users today is amazing; it probably would not be an exaggeration to say that there are 1,000 times the number of people online now than in the late 90s. And a greater percentage of them are far, far more technologically savvy than those I encountered when I first became a Guide. In the 90s, I often had to explain some of the most basic web-browsing features when answering email questions or dealing with visitors to my forum. Fortunately, I rarely have to do that anymore, although I always keep in mind that there are still newcomers to the whole computer/Internet thing. What this means for me as an About.com Guide is that I can spend more time on Medieval History and less on Internet 101.
In addition to a greater volume of users, it seems to me that most of them have shorter attention spans. Everyone is in a hurry, and few people take the time to browse a site. When I write my blogs, I try to be concise and get to the point quickly — a skill I didn’t have 12 years ago. There’s so much out there now for people to see and enjoy, that a rambling blog about medieval history isn’t likely to hold a visitor’s attention for long. Of course, with some of my articles I can afford to get more in-depth, but they are written specifically to provide that in-depth info for people who are looking for it.
Your work on About.com is more than just a blog – could you tell us more about what can be found on the Medieval History section and what kind of reader you aim for?
I have articles on a variety of topics, from post-Roman Britain to medieval Africa, and from misconceptions about life at the time (The Bad Old Days) to The F-Word (that would be Feudalism). Most are fairly introductory, but some are rather more substantial; they are all aimed at a broad general audience.
My Who’s Who in Medieval History resource offers brief, informative profiles of, currently, nearly 200 interesting and important individuals of the era. These pages are designed to get a student or history enthusiast acquainted with the bare facts of the individual, then lead him on to more in-depth info and resources, either at my site, in books, or at other authoritative websites.
There is also a fairly extensive directory of historical maps, both on the web and at my site, including images of some maps that were made during the Middle Ages. I’ve written reviews of books and films, and I’ve created quite a few quizzes. There are a few collections of images, most notably from the Tres Riches Heures Book of Hours and a history of the Tudors in portraits. I also maintain a “This Date in Medieval History” feature, and my most recent addition to the website is a glossary of terms. And, of course, there is a substantial directory to useful websites, organized by topic. Furthermore, my website, like all About websites, offers a forum and a weekly e-mail newsletter.
There are several other projects waiting in the wings, just as soon as more hours are added to the day ;-)
The bulk of my traffic is, by far, students looking for quick answers to homework questions or help with projects. Virtually all the material at my site will help students, though junior-high and grammar-school students may have a little difficulty with some of the more esoteric stuff. However, I consider my core audience the history enthusiast — people who are seeking information about the Middle Ages because they enjoy history in general or the medieval era in particular. These include authors, reenactors, gamers, college- and graduate-level students, autodidacts, and the good old-fashioned history buff. There are also, occasionally, budding enthusiasts — avid high-school students (and sometimes even younger), who are discovering history as an interest either apart from school or as a possible major in college or even a full-fledged career.
So, when I write, I try to make make my material both substantive and accessible to virtually any reader who might need it or enjoy it.
Finally, what other blogs and websites do you like to read?
I don’t have as much time as I’d like to read blogs, but I try to check in with those I link to in my blog roll and any associated blogs that I might add. Of these, my particular favorites have been Unlocked Wordhoard — Dr. Nokes has a great sense of humor, and I enjoy getting his viewpoint from Academia — and Per Omnia Saecula, because Jennifer Lynn Jordan is so sharp and very likable. I also regularly read all my fellow history Guides’ blogs at About.
Most of the rest of my web-surfing time is spent researching specific topics, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of that.
We thank Melissa Snell for answering our questions.