July 17, 2012

Understanding Web Pages and HTML

    Reviewed by Miriam Posner , Jim Clifford and Amanda Morton

Note: You may find it easier to complete this lesson if you have already completed the previous lesson in this series.

“Hello World” in HTML

Viewing HTML files

When you are working with online sources, much of the time you will be using files that have been marked up with HTML (Hyper Text Markup Language). Your browser already knows how to interpret HTML, which is handy for human readers. Most browsers also let you see the HTML source code for any page that you visit. The two images below show a typical web page (from the Old Bailey Online) and the HTML source used to generate that page, which you can see with the Tools -> Web Developer -> Page Source menu item in Firefox.

When you’re working in the browser, you typically don’t want or need to see the source for a web page. If you are writing a page of your own, however, it can be very useful to see how other people accomplished a particular effect. You will also want to study HTML source as you write programs to manipulate web pages or automatically extract information from them.

Old Bailey Online screenshot

Old Bailey Online screenshot

HTML Source for Old Bailey Online Web Page

HTML Source for Old Bailey Online Web Page

(To learn more about HTML, you may find it useful at this point to work through the W3 Schools HTML tutorial. Detailed knowledge of HTML isn’t immediately necessary to continue reading, but any time that you spend learning HTML will be amply rewarded in your work as a digital historian or digital humanist.)

“Hello World” in HTML

HTML is what is known as a markup language. In other words, HTML is text that has been “marked up” with tags that provide information for the interpreter (which is often a web browser). Suppose you are formatting a bibliographic entry and you want to indicate the title of a work by italicizing it. In HTML you use em tags (“em” stands for emphasis). So part of your HTML file might look like this

... in Cohen and Rosenzweig's <em>Digital History</em>, for example ...

The simplest HTML file consists of tags which indicate the beginning and end of the whole document, and tags which identify a head and a body within that document. Information about the file usually goes into the head, whereas information that will be displayed on the screen usually goes into the body.

<html>
<head></head>
<body>Hello World!</body>
</html>

You can try creating some HTML code. In your text editor, create a new file. Copy the code below into the editor. The first line tells the browser what kind of file it is. The html tag has the text direction set to ltr (left to right) and the lang (language) set to US English. The title tag in the head of the HTML document contains material that is usually displayed in the top bar of a window when the page is being viewed, and in Firefox tabs.

<!doctype html>
<html dir="ltr" lang="en-US">

<head>
    <title><!-- Insert your title here --></title>
</head>

<body>
    <!-- Insert your content here -->
</body>
</html>

Change both

<!-- Insert your title here -->

and

<!-- Insert your content here -->

to

Hello World!

Save the file to your programming-historian directory as hello-world.html. Now go to Firefox and choose File -> New Tab and then File -> Open File. Choose hello-world.html. Depending on your text editor you may have a ‘view page in browser’ or ‘open in browser’ option. Once you have opened the file, your message should appear in the browser. Note the difference between opening an HTML file with a browser like Firefox (which interprets it) and opening the same file with your text editor (which does not).

Suggested readings for learning HTML

Note: You are now prepared to move on to the next lesson in this series.

About the authors

William J. Turkel is Professor of History at the University of Western Ontario.   Adam Crymble is a lecturer of digital history at the University of Hertfordshire.  

Suggested Citation

William J. Turkel and Adam Crymble , "Understanding Web Pages and HTML," Programming Historian, (17 July 2012), http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/viewing-html-files