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12. The Internet and Historical Research:
Prospects and Problems

"Using the Internet as a Resource for Historical Research and Writing" has doubtless demonstrated to you the potential of the Internet to provide useful, convenient research resources for students, professors, and other history scholars, especially with respect to primary sources. Many more historical materials will likely be put on-line in the near future.

Your exploration of this site has probably also illustrated several serious problems. Searching for historical resources on the Internet is not as easy as doing a name or subject search in an electronic library catalog. Some subject directories do a good job of organizing sources and groups of sources around various historical and geographical themes, but one must often go far beyond the most obvious topics and subtopics to find useful material. Also, sometimes the titles provide inadequate information. Often, one must examine many indexes, a time-consuming chore. Search engines seem to provide the most direct path, but they present problems as well. Each uses its own methodology to search, but they all depend on finding the exact words or phrases one gives in the search command box. Some provide so many titles (most of them irrelevant to the searcher's purpose) that one becomes weary of the effort. In the case of both search methods, one must be patient.

One's forebearance will often be rewarded, however, and the extra time spent searching must be balanced against the convenience of finding sources on one's own desktop, rather than having to take the time to look for materials in nearby libraries or wait for weeks for books to arrive via Inter-Library Loan. I am not, however, suggesting, that one should attempt to avoid using libraries. The Internet is an additional resource to libraries, archives, etc., not as a substitute for them.

One very frustrating problem: sometimes when you select a link, a message informs you that the server (computer) on which the material resides somewhere in the world is not accepting your request and suggests that you try again later. (An immediate retry sometimes gets results, sometimes not.) At times you will get a message stating that the site does not have a DNS number. (Sometimes an immediate retry proves the message wrong!) From time to time you will find that the material you want is available but, for one or more reasons, you have to wait a long time for it to load.

A related problem, and one far more serious, is that links lead one to messages stating that the material requested is "not found," meaning probably that, the link, when created, was good, but the document or directory is no longer on the Internet or has a different address. Sometimes this difficulty can be overcome by using a search engine to do a title search, sometimes not.

Your perusal of subject directories has undoubtably revealed that most historical sources on the Web relate to the United States and to Europe (especially western Europe). Asia, Africa, and South America are barely represented. While there are probably many reasons for this, one must surely be that most Web sites have been developed in the United States and Europe, many of them by history departments at colleges and universities which offer a majority of their course work in varous aspects of the history of the peoples and nations of the West. However much one may deplore the Western "bias," if that is what it is, it is probably worse only by degree than the same disparity one finds in printed materials.

The issue of quality control, with respect to careful transcription and editing from the original primary source documents, is less serious now than in the earliest years of the Internet but still exists for some sites. Scholarly secondary sources continue to be rare and often difficult to find. It would be very helpful if a history department at some college or university would begin to develop a subject list of recent on-line scholarly works (including journal articles and papers read at professional meetings). One should always evaluate materials found on the Internet. This is especially true for secondary sources.

In the future, the Internet will open up new ways of presenting historical information. Some term papers, theses and dissertations, are available now on-line as Web documents. More probably will be on-line later. The Web allows one to integrate visual and aural materials with written text.

The historical profession, through its various international, national, regional, and state organizations, needs to use the Internet more effectively to disseminate historical information and ideas. This process has begun. Copyright considerations and a reluctance by college and university history departments to consider on-line publications in making tenure/promotion decisions will probably continue to hinder change. But, the Internet is a revolutionary communications delivery system with which the history profession must come to terms.

In the meantime, students of history have in the Internet a useful resource that can make historical research both convenient and interesting. For more ideas about history and the Internet, read one or more of the articles and essays on the subject in the last section of Take a Break with History. As you continue to explore the Internet as a resource for history research, I invite you to share your perceptions on the subject with me by sending e-mail to Roger A. Griffin.

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