Becoming A Digital Explorer of the Online World of History
First published on August 24, 2019. Last updated on February 15, 2020.
- Existing online historical sites and tools will be explored.
- Students will apply what they have learned in other history courses to critique the validity and relevance of online historical materials.
Searching For Online Information
Digital history allows you to become a digital explorer of the online world of history. Performing a web search on most historical terms will provide you with plenty of information. Some online sources are better than others. As a history student, you should know how to evaluate sources. Who provided the information? Is it claimed to be fact, opinion or speculation? What is the authority of the source? How would they know? Are they biased? Is the document by whom it purports to be? (Forged documents and fake sources still exist, as they always have.)
Wikipedia requires special mention. It is a great way to become introduced to historical topics and see related topics. However, you don’t know who wrote it or whether is it true. Also, key information might be omitted. So while Wikipedia might be your first stop to find out about a historical subject, it certainly should not be your last. It is better to have a source whose author is identified and who takes responsibility for the information proffered.
Google Maps is sometimes a good way to investigate what historical sites look like recently. There weren’t satellites before 1957, so there can’t have been any satellite imagery before then. Many historical sites do not have Google Street View coverage. However, there were aerial views and street level photos taken since the 1800s, and some of those may be found online. A Google image search can sometimes be more efficient than a text search.
Types of Online Resources
There are several types of digital resources for serious scholars. Some were originally in hard copy form and digitalized while others have always “lived” online.
An important type of resource for scholars are articles in peer-reviewed journals. Scholars will read through many articles. Most of those articles cost money to obtain, unless you access them though a school or university. The breadth of access to much materials varies tremendously among different schools and universities, but this should still be your first stop if available.
If you know the journal and issue number, you can go directly to the journal listing. Otherwise, you will need to search for the article via the university library’s search services. Many universities offer a simple one-field search interface which will often work by entering in an author and year or title. However, if your author has a common name, you may need to add more specific identifiers, such as an exact title, co-author names, publisher, etc.
If your library’s search service locates the article, then you will need to get the article. Your library search results will (hopefully) offer suggestions (links) for where to obtain the article. Be aware that different subscriptions and services may contain different date ranges for particular journals, so you may have to check several.
Being a subscriber to a journal or are a member of the journal’s host society can be a good way to access an article without paying extra for it, but sometimes university search services provide faster access.
Searching for books generally works the same way, unless your institution does not offer a simple search interface. In that case, search through the university’s online book catalog. Here, the results will most often contain digital downloads or digital access to the books via your university. Your library can sometimes get hard copies of books itself does not possess.
Dissertations and Masters Theses
Dissertations and masters theses can often be valuable sources. Access to such is much less consistent than access to major journals. Some libraries provide digital access while others do not.
If your library does not have direct access to a hard or digitalized copy of materials, sometimes they can request a hard or digitized copy of such from other libraries.
Libraries often contain special collections of unique, original materials, such as letters, records and maps. Many libraries have digitalized some of all of those collections and they may be available online or by request. How do you find such materials, which are scattered across the globe? First try your library’s simple search (e.g. OneSearch) and second, try a general web search.
There are two types of information that may show up on searches: contents of the original source and meta data. Items such as titles and authors are examples of metadata. Since these may be such unique and scarce items, make sure to figure out which terms to search by, and be prepared to make many searches on specific metadata terms or fragments of original content.
More recent primary sources, especially for data, have been digitized and can be found online in government and industry sites.
Computer Security and Data Protection
Before going further, now is a good time to mention that it is a dangerous world out there! (And sometimes inside as well.)
You should ensure that you are maintaining good practices when it come to your computer and its data.
- You should regularly up your entire computer. What this means it to copy your hard drive onto external medium such as a back-up drive. There are specific utilities for this. Ideally, you will periodically back up the back-up drive and place it in a separate safe location. (Or at least make copied of especially valuable files and keep them in a separate safe place). There are utilities that make this easier. Don’t forget about files on your phone or pad.
- You should use difficult-to-guess passwords. You should keep those passwords recorded in a safe place. There are password utilities that can help. Do not use the same password for everything.
- Hackers even go after routers. If you use a router, make certain that the password has been changed from a standard password such as “password”.
- If creating a website or web application, follow safety protocols for your language or framework.
- Don’t collect personal data from your users unless you absolutely need it, and be extra careful with it all. Read about the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
- Ancient History Encyclopedia (a general history site with some emphasis on the ancient)
- Omeka showcase of digital exhibits
- WorldCat (combines metadata from many libraries to make it easier to find sources)
- Zotero is a platform for collecting and organizing sources
- Professor Google. If you get serious about coding, you will have to start doing what serious coders do to learn how to use things or troubleshoot. They do Google searches. There is a lot of good and bad stuff out there and at different levels of relevancy and difficulty. You will eventually get a feel for what sources will work best for you, but a lot will remain trial and error. So before you try things, always make a back-up of your work!
- W3 Schools provide useful tutorials and reference information. Examples include:
- H-Net Digital History site
- Article regarding various text editors