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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
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.
- The Avalon Project. This project, produced and managed by the Yale Law School, contains documents relevant to the fields of law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government. It is international in scope. It is an excellent, growing site. There are four major sections: Pre 18th Century Documents, 18th Century Documents, 19th Century Documents, and 20th Century Documents. For an example, select the last section, then scroll down to Harry S. Truman: Papers. Then select The Truman Doctrine. There will be displayed President Truman's address before a joint session of Congress, March 12, 1947, in which he laid out the famous foreign policy stance relating to Greece and Turkey.
- Making of America.This project, developed and maintained by the University of Michigan, is a huge digital library of primary sources having to do with nineteenth-century American history. It consists of scanned images of the pages in the original books and journals. The collection's emphasis is on social history, and the concentration of materials is the period from about 1850 to the end of Reconstruction. Although the collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, sociology, religion, and science and technology, there are items that are purely political in character. For an example of the latter, select Browse and then "Browse a Complete Bibliography of Books, organized by author." Then select "D." Scroll down to "Democratic National Convention. Official proceedings of the Democratic national convention, held in 1860, at Charleston and Baltimore . . ."
"Making of America" contains approximately 5,000 books and journal volumes with nineteenth-century imprints. It is made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The project is best viewed with a frames-capable browser. There is one serious limitation to the site. One must have a computer with a fast processor and also have a reasonably fast modem to make practical use of this excellent collection. Otherwise, it will take too long for the pages to load. Also, some page images are too large to be viewed on the screen. Fortunately, there is a feature that allows for reducing the size of the image.
- 19th Century Documents Project. From the site: "When completed this collection will include accurate transcriptions of many important and representative primary texts
from nineteenth century American history, with special emphasis on those sources that shed light on sectional conflict and transformations in regional identity. Because of our location in South Carolina and the salient role of its natives in the era's history there will also be a number of materials relevant to South Carolina or South Carolinians." For examples, select Early National Period. There one will find President Andrew Jackson's message, vetoing the charter of the Second Bank of the United States (1832) and the Women's Rights Petition to the New York Legislature (1854).
- The Internet Classics Archive. Almost 400 English translations of classical Greek and Roman texts.
- The Perseus Project. Subtitled, "An Evolving Digital Library on Ancient Greece." Produced by the Classics Department of Tufts University. Has primary sources, secondary sources, links to other sites, etc.
- The Labyrinth. Subtitled: "A World Wide Web Server for Medieval Studies." Sponsored by Georgetown University. Consists mainly of links to other Web sites that have primary and secondary sources but promises to develop new resources.
- The On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies ORB). A cooperative effort on the part of scholars across the Internet to establish an online textbook source for medieval studies on the World-Wide Web. Has many links to primary sources and a few documents at the site itself.
- Project Bartleby (also referred to as The Bartleby Library). From project materials: "Project Bartleby electronic media represent with 100% accuracy an original work--a goal achieved by professional editorial standards that spare no expense in the scanning, data entry, proof-reading, and markup protocols. The quality of its services make them suitable for both pleasure reading and professional scholarship." Most of the material relates to literature, but there is a file titled Inaugural Address of the Presidents. This compilation is a transcription of a book published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1989, at the direction of Congress. It has been supplemented with the inaugural addresses of Bill Clinton. One will also find writings by W. E. B. Dubois, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, and Theodore Roosevelt.
- The Cybrary of the Holocaust. This is one of several Internet collections on the subject and probably the best. Contains many documents of survivors, perpetrators, Holocaust deniers, etc.
- The Digital Classroom: Primary Sources and Activities. A selection of documents in the National Archives. While geared to public school instruction, the documents are of potential use to all scholars and students. There are only a few documents available at the site, but more are added from time to time. For an example of one of the site's treasures, select The Zimmermann Telegram, 1917. There you will find an English language translation of the document, plus electronic reproductions of the coded and decoded versions of the telegram. Ironically, the coded telegram was sent "via Galveston," a city in a state that would have reverted to Mexican sovereignty had all terms suggested in the telegram been successfully implemented.
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