Always Worth a Second Look, the Benefits of Time and Digitization

Sometimes, the most helpful resource is a newer format of an old standby.

As Finding Aids & Beyond returns for the new year, I’m inspired to look back at some old resources that have only improved with the benefits of time and digitization. For example, historic newspaper collections like Chronicling America — new data mining tools enable you to comb the pages for trends as well browse articles. Good content, whatever its format, is always worth a second look.

My email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. constantly are inundated with alerts about hidden collections made accessible, newly published exhibits, and digital content updates, not to mention new history apps. Inevitably, I file away the newest thing for future reference only to rediscover it during an impromptu online search. Or it pops up on my radar as a part of a complied list or bibliography. At first, I was uncertain how to resolve this redundancy. Now, I have come to recognize it as a valuable step in the research process — to make new connections between disparate sources and reevaluate conclusions drawn from existing sources.

CDC's Wellbee

CDC’s Wellbee

When searching for information, especially on a familiar topic, there are benefits to going back through sources for a second and third look. This is particularly true of online sources, which may have changed in format if not content since your last visit.

Case in point — I always forget about the CDC’s Public Health Image Library. Maybe this is because it is a smaller collection, but the database is still a great place to find clip art as well as historic gems, like the Wellbee cartoon first used in the 1960s during the Sabin oral polio vaccine campaigns in the United States. When it went out West, the Wellbee donned a ten gallon hat and a lasso!

Another example of the benefits from giving past resources a second look came recently when I was working on an article about field nursing during the Great Depression. I had not worked on the topic in several years and was coming to the material with new and different interests. I found new photos, newspapers, and entire folders-worth of documents that had previously been unavailable. It was a goldmine.

Digitized primary sources, like those in E-Archives, allowed me to do research that was impossible five years ago without significant time and expense. Special mention goes to the digital gallery at Cline Library’s Special Collections and Archives at Northern Arizona University. I had not been able to visit this particular archive on past research trips but knew about its valuable collections, particularly related to the Four Corners region, because of the finding aids included in Arizona Archives Online (AAO). While not new, online encyclopedias and digital resources by state continue to expand their coverage, making them a quick and easy go-to for fact checking and finding new collections online.

Of course, digital content is limited and cannot replicate the depth of a physical archive or library. But re-assessing sources online and on the book shelf have become equally important. For more on the changing nature of archival research in the digital age, check out the Dec 2012 report, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians” by ITHAKA S+R.

What are other history resources worth a second look in 2013?

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Tip of the week: Checklist for walking into an archive

Recently, I was asked to think about my advice to researchers walking into an archive  for the first time.

Typical Study Room, Typing Room #220

A typical study room at the New York Public Library, 1926
(New York Public Library Visual Materials, New York Public Library Flickr photostream)

For anyone unfamiliar with conducting research on site, repositories like libraries and archives are rich with primary sources but can require a little getting used to.

Therefore, I decided the way I think about doing research in an archive, and the best way to describe it to others, is in the form of a brief checklist. There’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (actually 6) things to consider before walking into an archive. To celebrate October as Archives Month, you can read what I came up with, my checklist Early Detection: Preparing to be a History Detective, on the website The Ultimate History Project.

How does it compare with your experience in archives? Hit the comments section above or below and let me know.

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.)

Tip of the week: Easy ways to access academic journals

In this new weekly series, Finding Aids & Beyond offers quick tips and easy go-to resources that make doing historical research less stressful and more successful.

Books at Library Annex

The library annex, where bound copies of older journals are often kept (UNT Library, The Portal to Texas History)

The library card — that little piece of paper or plastic is an invaluable keycard even in today’s world of e-books and digital libraries. I recently discovered just that when I went in search of a journal article I needed for research.

The internet makes the contents of peer-reviewed journals more accessible than ever before. This methodology and historiography essential to any historian’s toolbox is, however, usually available only to paid subscribers. Most academic journal subscriptions come as a perk of membership to professional organizations. The depth and breadth of a discipline like history is evident in the variety of peer-reviewed journals (regional, topical, interdisciplinary, etc.) that populate the literature review. But no one is a member of all these organizations. That’s where libraries — and the library card — step in to serve a vital purpose.

Professors, staff, and students have access to academic journals from their educational institution. University libraries subscribe to online databases of compiled journal articles and e-books like the humanities databases Project Muse and JSTOR. These digital libraries have more titles than the typical brick-and-mortar library but may be limited in the number of issues covered for a particular journal. Sometimes, the quickest way to get an academic journal is the old-fashioned way: leg work. Head to the nearest university library that has a copy. And that’s just what I did. There the journal lay neatly on the shelf, waiting for me.

As for online context, there are a few different options. Open access journals do exist. A librarian friend recently introduced me to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Some subscription-based journals also make a percentage of their articles publicly available on the publisher’s website or allow registered guests to download articles. In the humanities and social sciences, free access to book reviews is available through the discussion network H-Net Reviews.

A montage of NLM publications

An assortment of biomedical indices and catalogs from the National Library of Medicine (Images from the History of Medicine)

Accessibility seems to vary by discipline. As a historian of medicine and public health, I find medical and scientific journals easier to access online than some social science periodicals. Compiled reference databases like PubMed from the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health offer abstracts as well as full text articles, depending on the year and the publisher.

Other ways to get access to academic journals include:
1. Set up article and citation alerts — you can do this on the publisher’s website, the digital database website or through a search engine like Google.
2. Use interlibrary loan. Often, ILL departments will send you a link to your email to access the journal online. (Warning: ILL requests usually have a longer turn around time.)
3. Invest in a subscription.

OR… There is another option. Your library card can get you into more places than you might expect. In Texas, the TexShare card enables patrons of one library to borrow books, access journals, etc. from other participating libraries throughout the state. To learn more about the TexShare Card program, visit the Texas State Library and Archives Commission website.

It may come as a surprise, but even in the digital age, a library card can still be the researcher’s best resource.

UPDATE This week, the American Historical Association published its Statement on Scholarly Journal Publishing on its blog AHA Today. The debate over open access to scholarly research continues as historians grapple with how their work is valued inside and outside the academy.

History Infographics — what can they tell us about the 1940s?

History Infographics — they’re fun to look at, but what can they tell us?

After the release of the 1940 U.S. Census back in April, Ancestry.com recently shared new infographics on its blog, “Ancestry’s Infographics: What Was Life Like in 1940?” There is a graphic for the each of the 48 states, plus U.S. territories. (Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.) Infographics, including timelines, charts, and maps, can be great mediums to display data in eye-catching, informative ways.

Each of Ancestry’s images shows off the state’s products, such as the auto industry in Michigan or two of the 5 C’s in Arizona (cotton and citrus). Some of the graphics highlight World War II activities like the military dog training camp that opened in Montana or the Mickey Mouse-looking gas masks handed out to children after Pearl Harbor. Other pieces of trivia are just fun: where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez were married (Greenwich, Connecticut), where the first McDonald’s opened (San Bernardino, California).

Ultimately, infographics can tell us as much about the interests of the creators as they do the subjects depicted.

As for the 1940 U.S. Census, it is full of demographic data like migration during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, hours in a work week, and annual income. For instance, a “parcel post carrier” in Texas worked 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, for an income of $2,100. The 1940 census also took note of federal employment through the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and other alphabet agencies of the New Deal.

An original blank 1940 Federal Decennial Census Population Schedule

Closeup of the 1940 Population Schedule, part of the Federal Decennial Census (National Archives)

Being able to read a census form is an important skill in the researcher’s toolbox, not to mention deciphering the enumerator’s handwriting. Each decennial census (taken every 10 years) had a different look and set of information included.

Check out the 1940 U.S. Census fully indexed and searchable by name on Ancestry.com. For an introduction to the 1940 Census, the full list of questions asked by census takers (called enumerators), and a glossary of census terminology, see the National Archives website dedicated to the 1940 census.

P.S. Don’t forget to browse city directories from the time period, too, for additional information about family members and what local communities were like in the 1940s.

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