Sunday, September 16, 2012
Internet Sources for Historians
Back to blogging! Over the last month I have been working diligently on the copy edits for my upcoming biography of William Temple Hornaday to be published by the University of Virginia Press next year. In my acknowledgements I thank the creators of Google Books, ancestry.com, the Library of Congress website, and others, for making historical sources more accessible. Some question the efficacy of using internet sources. Dan Feller, editor of the Papers of Andrew Jackson rose the issue on H-SHEAR (Humanities Net list serve for the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic). Similar discussions have taken place in other forums as well. In a thoughtful summary of the issues of internet sources on The Historical Society blog, Bland Whitley pointed out that there are two fundamental problems. One is the lack of permanence of the still relatively new internet. It is reasonable to ask, can one find a source to verify a citation? After all, the internet is littered with broken links. This presents a large problem for those citations that do not refer to an original book (say a book from Google Books). I have noticed that many non-history, non-fiction books site numerous websites, including blog entries. The second problem, as Feller argued, is the departure from the historian's doctrine of using the original or standard source. For example, if I am looking for President Chester Arthur's 1882 State of the Union Address, the standard source is (as for all 19th century presidents), James D. Richardson's Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the President's of the United States, a multi-volume work available in most libraries. Yes, there are other sources with this document on the internet, including many websites (some academic and some not) containing the annual messages of the chief executive to the legislative branch. I understand this and I think Feller is correct to raise this issue. There are numerous fragments of documents, misquoted or incorrect "documents", and otherwise altered primary sources on the internet that cannot be relied upon and should not be used by a professional historian. On the other hand, I think the internet is a great treasure trove of the best kinds of documents that historians require to do their work. These are the ones I refer my students to. For example, there are many scanned editions of newspapers that are hard to locate in their original form. My favorite such source is the Brooklyn Historical Society's copies of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. The Library of Congress, Ancestry.com, and other sites have numerous other scanned newspaper copies as well. Likewise, Cornell University has digitized many 19th century journals. These are credible sites to obtain primary source material that I would have not otherwise been able to utilize, except at great cost. I consider Google Books a wonderful site. In one case it helped me locate the original source of a quote when I "quoted" it from a secondary source. In my example, I found a quote by Hornaday in the Annual Report of the New York Zoological Source, that I had previously quoted from William Bridge's history of the Bronx Zoo. Internet sources, including digitized versions of periodicals, have search engines that make it so much easier and time efficient to mine them.