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Friday, 27 April 2012

Finding primary sources on the web for US history: some tips

A busy few months have meant little time for blogging, but I find myself with a slight lull on a Friday afternoon at long last! The History Thesis Fair for 2nd year undergraduates is also fast approaching, and it seems timely therefore to put together a post which might help in answering one of the questions that I most frequently get asked by undergraduates considering writing their thesis on some aspect of US history: is it possible to find sufficient primary source material without travelling to the United States?

Obviously we do subscribe to many extensive electronic resources that provide a wealth of primary source material, and we also have a substantial collection of primary sources available on microfilm in the library, but increasingly you are by no means limited to what we have purchased here in Oxford. The amount of primary source material that is being digitised and made freely available on the web by all sorts of institutions, organisations, and people in the US is vast, growing, and transformative. This whole area could fill several blog posts and still only scratch the surface, but what I will do here is provide some tips and suggestions for places to start looking beyond just throwing your search terms into Google and hoping you strike lucky. I will aim to follow up with more detailed posts on some of the resources mentioned here over the next few months.

Firstly, a plug for what we’ve been doing at the VHL to help our readers find useful web resources. We have a page on a site called Delicious which we use to save links to websites that we find as and when we come across them. It would be well worth checking our delicious page for the subject or area that you are interested in first to see what we have already found – you can search or use the tags on the right-hand side of the page to filter the full list to more relevant links for you. Delicious can also be a useful site to search in general. If you haven’t come across it before, it is a site entirely devoted to lists of useful websites created by its users; anything you find on Delicious has been consciously and deliberately saved by someone, and therefore evaluated at least to a certain extent, so you can perhaps be a little more confident in its quality than just from a random Google search. Other libraries are also using Delicious to create and maintain lists of free web resources too – the History Faculty Library has a page too, for example.

A strategic way to approach your search for primary source material on the web is to think about it in terms of the libraries, archives, and other institutions that are likely to be the homes for the originals. Almost all of these institutions are engaged in some kind of digitisation to a greater or lesser extent; you may not be able to travel to them physically but it’s amazing what you can find by visiting them virtually. The websites of the Library of Congress and US National Archives are both wonderful places to start. The Library of Congress have extensive digital collections available at http://www.loc.gov/library/libarch-digital.html (click on the ‘Digital Collections’ button at the top of their homepage), including American Memory (numerous themed historic collections on all sorts of topics), Chronicling America (historic newspapers – see the earlier post on this blog for more information) and Prints & Photographs. They also have a huge list of thematic bibliographies and guides at http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/bibhome.html to help you navigate their collections (both physical and digital) as well as pointing out to other useful online resources from elsewhere. The National Archives have less material on their main website, but are making thousands of digitised sources available on other, dedicated sites such as DocsTeach (aimed at teachers and schools) and the Digital Vaults, and subscription-based sites such as Fold3 (which has a military/veterans focus).

Other institutions are all doing the same kind of thing. If you’re interested in a particular geographical location, start with the website for the relevant State Historical Association or major universities in the area; many states also have digital library programs, designed to provide access to digitised resources from many different institutions throughout the state on a single website. Examples are Calisphere (for California), Digital Commonwealth (Massachusetts), LOUISiana Digital Library, Digital NC (North Carolina), the Portal to Texas History, and so on. These kind of sites are particularly good for documents such as letters and diaries, photographs, oral history, audiovisual materials, and maps. An earlier post on this blog gives pointers to some places to look for historic American newspapers online.

Likewise, if your area is political history, particularly for 20th century Presidents, the website of the relevant Presidential Library would be a good place to start. Some of them, like the JFK Library, are engaged in particularly extensive digitisation projects. If you’re looking for material on Presidents and their administrations, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia have a really good reference resource arranged by President on their website which points to all sorts of sources both from their own collections and elsewhere on the web.

As well as looking for digitised collections, another good tip is to search for exhibitions, either fully online ones or websites set up to accompany physical exhibitions, such as those listed on the Library of Congress or National Archives websites. Exhibitions are a big driver of digitisation, but tend to be more narrowly focused on their theme than the kind of material you may find in the more extensive digital collections portals.
Another tip is to look at the various social media profiles of many of these institutions, as these are often used for outreach and promotion with digitised materials frequently posted. As well as Facebook and Twitter pages, look at institutional profiles on sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube. Flickr has a project called the Flickr Commons, where many libraries and archives are uploading their historic photographs and other images. An excellent example on Tumblr is Today’s Document from the National Archives. There are also some fantastic mash-up sites such as Old Maps Online and HistoryPin which overlay historic maps and photographs from all sorts of institutions onto Google maps, for example.

There are a few things to be aware of when looking for and making use of free web resources though. Unlike library-purchased e-resources, you will often find that these are not full-text searchable and are often just images; you may well have to decipher handwriting and may not be able to easily find which particular page of a document is going to be relevant to your needs. The cataloguing can be less extensive as well, and you may have to rely on browsing through the documents and images rather than expecting to find what you want by searching. And what is freely available can be rather hit-and-miss itself. While it’s true that there is now a huge amount of material available in this way, it’s still a tiny drop in the ocean, and so you may be lucky and find a lot for your topic, or you may find that there’s hardly anything relevant to your particular area of research. It’s always worth having a look though! And if you come across something useful that we don’t have on our Delicious list, please let us know so that we can save it for others to find too.

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