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4. Finding Primary Sources on the Internet

This is where the Internet really shines. There are thousands of primary sources relating to history on the Web and in Gopher and FTP files. Primary sources are historical materials produced by persons who were on the scene when the historical events they describe occurred. Most primary sources are in written form. Written primary sources include personal correspondence, diaries, journals, memoirs, autobiographies, and government documents (laws, treaties, reports, ordinances, proceedings, etc.). Some newspaper accounts qualify as well. You will find primary sources on the Internet mainly by using subject directories and search engines.

Each method has its advantages. subject directories may easily lead you to material relevant to your topic. If it had to do with the Gulf War of 1990-'91, you could access the subject directory titled Archives of Personal Experience and Related Resources. Scroll down to "Primary and Secondary Sites," then to "Historical Events, Family Histories, Storytelling: Wars (mostly chronological)." You could then select Ronald A. Hoskinson's Gulf War Diary.

On the other hand, subject directories sometimes will obscure one's way rather than providing a clear path to a document. For example, among the famous writings of the ancient world is Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars. Here is the path on the Internet that led me (accidentally) to it. I was browsing through American and British History Resources. I selected Sites by Subject. I then scrolled down to "Miscellaneous" and selected Modern English Language Texts. Scrolling down the author list , I found Julius Caesar and his Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic and Civil Wars. One would scarcely have expected to find this document in a subject directory titled, "American and British History Resources" or in a sub-index titled "Modern English Language Texts," but there it was.

For an example of using a search engine to find a primary source document, access AltaVista. Type in "Emancipation Proclamation." On the day I tried it, it was the second entry displayed. To see the document, select this link.

Plan to use several subject directories and search engines in a particular search. (See Finding History Resources on the Internet with Subject Directories and Finding History Resources on the Internet with Search Engines for examples of some of the possibilities and problems of using both subject directories and search engines to find primary sources for particular subjects.)

One problem in using primary source material is that sometimes one cannot determine whether the document has been accurately and completely transcribed and/or translated. Here is an example: Using the subject directory, The English Server: History and Historiography, you will find an item titled, Laws of William. If you open it, you will find a compilation of ten laws promulgated by King William I, sometime after his conquest of England in 1066. Nowhere in this on-line document will you find any information about the date or dates of the laws, who collected them into the compilation, who transcribed and/or translated them into the modern English of the on-line document. Neither is there any hint about the location of the source material (manuscript or printed) on which the on-line document was based. Historical scholars usually want all or at least most of this information, so that they can judge the document's accuracy and completeness.

Some Primary Source Projects on the Internet

Here is just a sample of some excellent sites (usually sponsored by a university or a government agency) which have primary sources organized around one or more historical themes or a particular time period.

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