Archive for the 'Research' Category

…And a Few More History Research Resources

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

There’s plenty more out there besides the Making of America site that I described in an earlier post.

Here are a few more great resources for historical research that are accessible on the internet, but that do not show up in a routine Google search (or any other search engine, for that matter):

This site used to be as clutzy as MOA, but over the years, has continually improved its offerings and service, to the point where these days it gets a clear-cut Wow!

What’s here? Nothing less than the newspaper heritage of the United States from 1759 onward, (with a smattering of other countries), in an easy-to-use, full text search collection that returns the original page images (and when they add a text-only feature as well, for quicker access, the site will be pretty near perfect!). These are mostly smaller-circulation papers, but what better resource for zeroing in on the feel of local life in some small town in the 1800’s?

This is a subscription service, but you can search free of charge, and see snippet results. They also have free archive access to special topics, from Abe Lincoln to the Winter Games (with AIDS, Pearl Harbor, JFK, and lots more in between)…these are a great way to explore what this resource has to offer.

bottomline — entire history of the US, with a little UK, Canada, Jamaica and a few others thrown in, free to search, easy to use, and reasonably-priced subscriptions if you want full copies. Pretty great site. Now, if only they didn’t do everything in PDF format.

Questia markets itself mostly to the college crowd, but it’s actually a very deep and pretty easy-to-use online library…think of it as a small college library with every book accessible over the internet. In fact, they market themselves as the world’s largest online library, though that probably should be taken with a grain or two of salt.

Still…it’s an impressive collection. It’s not all history, of course, but there’s certainly no shortage of historical texts. I’ve used Questia for researching US casualties in post-WWII occupied Germany, the history of chain stores in the US, and the role of the Hessians in the Revolutionary War, just to name a few. You can search Questia at no cost, and see a preview of results, but to get the full resource, you’ll have to subscribe….sorry!

bottomline — an academic’s dream resource, with a strong leaning towards the “liberal arts” as represented in 20th century publications, free to search and preview

Project Gutenberg

I’ll mention this one just in passing. Gutenberg’s results do, actually, show up in plain ol’ Google-type searches, but don’t always make it to the top of the results page. A direct search of Project Gutenberg often produces better results. What’s there? Just the world’s great literature from ages past — more than 18,000 books — in etext format. Their advanced search feature is a convenient way to explore.

bottomline — Clunky, but one of the internet’s gems.

Assorted archives

Interested in the history of a particular city/state/province/country? Search Google on [ place-name archives ] and see what pops up.

For instance, a search on [ australia archives ] takes you to (go on…guess) the National Archives of Australia, an especially well-done national site for historical resources.

Closer to home, I find myself using the Maryland State Archives quite a bit.

bottomline — The truth is out there. Buried.


I wish I could eagerly recommend the historical archives of the world’s great newspapers. The New York Times, Washington Post, the Scotsman, and a host of others are all available, but unless you have access through Proquest, they are pretty unfriendly resources. Still, the ability to see the actual newspaper headlines of history is something that gives me a geekish thrill.

bottomline — These are great, great, great historical resources. Too bad they’re hamstrung by copyright hang-ups, and seem almost deliberately user-unfriendly in a lawyeristic sort of way.


Don’t know much about history?

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

Face it…every now and then you’re going to want to know about something that happened a long time ago.

Not the big events. Anyone can Google the Gettysburg Address, and come up with a ton or two of historical information

But what about the wee details? That small town where your dad was born…what was it like back in the 1920’s? What were schoolkids reading 100 years ago? When did the word ‘popsicle’ first make an appearance? What did his contemporaries think about Tom Paine

The internet is a mixed bag when it comes to researching historical questions like these. After, say, 1994, you can find just about everything online. But anything earlier than that, and you’re more or less at the whims of the digitizers — those who have made the effort (Herculean, in many cases) of unearthing pre-internet materials, getting them into an electronic format, and making them available.

A surprising amount of historical information has been digitized in this way, and makes for a rich resource for anyone delving into questions like the ones above. But the bulk of it won’t show up in a routine Google search. You really need to dig. You need to head right to the sources themselves.

In the next few posts, I hope to offer some of the best places to turn to for historical research on the internet, starting with

Making of America (and associated archives)

I call this the Making of America site, but its formal name is the University of Michigan Digital Library Text Collections (sort of rolls off the tongue, eh). There’s all sorts of history here, from dentistry to poetry to 19th century American magazines, to the archives of (really!) American Jewess magazine.

It’s a huge gimish of collections, badly organized, and hard to wade through. It’s even hard to give you a link for it all! If you want to search all the collections at once, it doesn’t (at first) seem possible. It took me months to realize they have an all-collections search function buried deep within their site, at a URL so inconceivably-clumsy that if I try to paste it here, it @#%^&$*!’s up the whole works.

Searching itself is idiosyncratic, and the results are rather unfriendly in that you don’t get little snippets that give you an idea, in advance, of how on-target or off-target a particular search result may be

With all these negatives, why even bother with Making of America? Because it’s a great and unique and deep collection of materials that you won’t find anywhere else.

Where else could you possibly find a 19th century travel guide to New Orleans:

Jewell’s Crescent city, illustrated.
The commercial, social, political and general history of New Orleans, including biographical sketches of its distinguished citizens, together with a map and general strangers’ guide.
Jewell, Edwin Lewis
New Orleans, 1873.

MOA provides access to original documents in both text-only and full image format.

bottomline — clumsy, infuriating, slow and awkward, but free of charge, and a rich, rich resource for (mostly) US history

And before I forget…welcome to web-owls everyone!

Pafalafaga, a how-to-search sort of a guy.

Learning whilst researching

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

One of the great things about research is that you learn new things. You might find out how many ants there are in the world, or which book has a quotation about exploding melons, or how many bridges collapse within ten years of being built.

When I lived in New Zealand, I knew a builder who led a thrifty and frugal life. He worked for three months each year, then spent the remaining nine months at Auckland library, learning about everything and anything by reading book after book.

As researchers, we’ve got it better than he did because we can earn money whilst we learn.

There is a downside, of course. We don’t necessarily want to learn everything that we research. Do we really want to learn the causes and solutions of some personal hygiene problem? Do we really want to learn how many cars were sold with CD players in 1992 in Detroit? Do we really want to learn the intricate details of slaughterhouse practises, or the contact details of the marketing managers of the ten largest widget makers in Spain?

Maybe not.

The mark of a professional researcher is to focus on the job at hand, and we can always gain satisfaction from a research job well done, whatever the subject. When the job also results in a rewarding learning experience, that’s a fringe benefit!

Is Wikipedia a legitimate research source?

Friday, May 12th, 2006

In theory, Wikipedia can’t possibly work. After all, it’s an encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to be an encyclopedia author. So can it ever be a legitimate research source?


In serious research, we prefer to work from the original sources whenever that is practical. Nevertheless, when researching a field with which we are not familiar, it can be very helpful to start with an encyclopedia article in order to get an overview of the topic that can guide the direction of our research effort.

I don’t expect that an encyclopedia article will give me deep insights into a topic. Rather, it will provide me with a measure of the breadth of the topic.

For some topics, good specialized encyclopedias are available. For example, my wife is a GP and has access to a number of medical reference encyclopedias. For other topics, a general purpose encyclopedia may be all that is available, and is often sufficient.

So, when looking up a general purpose encyclopedia, would one ever prefer to use Wikipedia as opposed to, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica? Yes, I think so, and for a number of reasons.

  • Although in theory Wikipedia can’t possibly work, in practise it works rather well. Although any old fool can add misinformation to Wikipedia, or even vandalise whole articles, it turns out that on average each contributor improves more than they destroy. Over time, with millions of contributions, we see continuing improvements in the coverage, detail and quality of Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia is up-to-date. If something happens today, it will be reflected in Wikipedia within a week (if not within an hour).
  • Wikipedia has a policy of not taking a position on controversial issues. Instead, their “neutral point of view” policy requires that both sides of an issue are acknowledged. If you want to delve further into a controversy, Wikipedia’s article discussion pages and article revision history will provide plenty of that!
  • Wikipedia also covers many topics that conventional encyclopedias don’t touch. You might find the occasional encyclopedic mention of April Fool’s Day, but you won’t find a listing of stunts to equal Wikipedia’s April Fool article. And I doubt you’ll find any other encyclopedia with articles about such diverse cultural topics as Schoolies Week and Slashdot Subculture.

When Nature compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica, they found on average three errors per article in Britannica compared to four in Wikipedia, however the number of errors considered to be “serious” was the same for both. Considering that the average length of the Wikipedia articles was more than double that of the Britannica articles, it’s clear that Wikipedia’s error rate per thousand words is substantially lower.

As an added bonus, the Wikipedia website – unlike the Britannica website – doesn’t bombard me with pop-under advertisements.

So yes, for all these reasons I think there is a genuine role for Wikipedia in the preliminary stages of a research project.

The thrill of the chase

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

For me, the joy of researching is at its strongest when I am chasing hard for some piece of information that I know is out there, but neither I nor the client have located.

The challenge is to gather together as many clues as possible, then to connect them together in a logical way that suggests where to search for the next clue.

As the trail of clues grows stronger, the chase intensifies until … at last! … there it is – the target of the search.

Of course it doesn't always work out that well. Sometimes the desired information isn't out there. Perhaps the only place it still exists is locked away in someone's memory. Sometimes the answer is out there, but I fail to find it. Perhaps a false clue has thrown me off the scent, or perhaps I just haven't looked long enough and hard enough.

Sometimes I've worked for a long time towards one specific research goal, and all the leads seem to be turning into dead ends. Before I give up, I check out just one last possibility – and there the answer is, staring me in the face! That's a buzz!