Tip of the week: To Google or Not To Google

Card catalog in Central Search Room, July 31, 1942.

Card catalog in the National Archives Central Search Room, 1942 (National Archives Flickr photostream)

Finding Aids & Beyond offers quick tips and easy go-to resources that make doing historical research less stressful and more successful. Do you have a helpful tip to share or a topic to suggest? Hit the comments section above. (This is the internet; No. 2 pencils not required.)

To Google or Not To Google — that is the question when doing historical research online.

The digital card catalog known as Google offers a multitude of primary resources at your finger tips. They come from libraries, archives, and museums. However, you have to know how to search for items online. Unfortunately, there is no rule of thumb for what has and has not been digitized and made available online.

When searching for items online, there are two important factors to consider:

  1. Level of interest to potential viewers and users (higher interest = more likely online)
  2. Date of creation (Newer = more likely online)

In digital history, as in commerce, there is a direct relationship between supply and demand. Digitization requires time and funding to transfer that stack of dusty records into thumbnails for easy viewing on multiple devices. If a newspaper, photo, or video wasn’t born online, there is no guarantee that it has a digital presence. Both the level of general interest and the date of creation can influence the availability of historical resources.

However, there is good news! Digital history and digital humanties are a trending topic, as I mentioned in my previous post about the recent 2012 Digital Frontiers Conference at the University of North Texas in Denton. Whether you’re looking for information on the history of The Great Migration or biographies of women Changing the face of Medicine in the United States, there are a wide breadth of online resources to find.

What a quick Google search cannot replicate is the depth of research required to understand how documents relate to one another. You can still be left clicking page after page of search results, image after image for a particular name or phrase.

Sometimes, digital history projects assist in replicating this process online like the subject guides and other resources included on the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University — a cool website I discovered at the Digital Frontiers conference last week. With the technical, acronym-driven words found in government and military reports as well as changing names of units, political factions, and geographic locals, this website helps the researcher consider the best search words within its collections. There are also links to other Vietnam history resources online.

Online or on-site, a variety of factors influence access to historical records and artifacts. Think about the format, creator, repository. This information can help to explain why different types of materials are available. For instance, public figures might donate personal papers to their alma mater, but their professional papers may be located at collecting agency for the branch of government for which they worked. Government produced reports, documents, and other publications should be available through state and federal repositories like libraries and archives. But, depending on the subject and time period, they may have been destroyed, not retained, or remain restricted from use.

Bottom line: you have to be a “history detective” to find history resources online, but Google and other web browsers certainly can help.

(This post is a revised version of a paper I had the opportunity to present as part of the session “Benefits and Issues Arising from Availability of Online Content” at the recent Digital Frontiers 2012 conference. To learn more about digital history or for online tools and examples of digital history projects, check out the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.)

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