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: 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.

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