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The Future of the Past: History Sources on the Internet

Magazine article Searcher

The Future of the Past: History Sources on the Internet

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Imagine that a patron needs help with research for a novel she is writing that is set in 12th century France. How would you find historical information online describing daily life in a French village in the year 1185? What food did people eat? What clothing did they wear? What forms of entertainment did they pursue? Where could you quickly find this information? Historians and historical-fiction writers bring history to life through the skillful selection of such details from daily life.

For researchers of history, the number of Internet resources is increasing rapidly. Whether helping a patron research daily life in a medieval village, the effects of atomic radiation at Hiroshima, or even corporate histories, one can locate useful information on almost all historical topics online. The following provides some key resources useful to librarians and other database professionals tracing the march of time.

As for the facts of life in 12th century France, the Internet and the library offer researchers two powerful tools. Using the popular search engine Google [, May 2000], simply type "daily life in a 12th century French village." Scroll down until you see "Medieval Technology-Reading List" [[sim]medtech/medbooks.html]. Professor Paul J. Gans at New York University created this Medieval Technology and Everyday Life Bibliography for students in his course, "Medieval Technology and Everyday Life." You will find books and articles on every aspect of medieval life, including food, crafts, trades, medicine, and military technology Using a university library's Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), one can locate many of the titles on Professor Gans' Web site, as well as hundreds of books on all aspects of medieval life. There is even a serendipitous link to Fordham University's Internet Medieval Sourcebook, a powerful Web site created by Paul Halsall, that includes full- text, medieval source documents []. Incidentally Yahoo! recently selected Google as its default search engine, supplementing Yahoo!'s own directory listings.

However, despite the explosion of Internet resources, researchers quickly realize that they will probably have to travel to a large public or academic/university library if they want to examine titles that appear on Professor Gans' reading list, as well as scholarly books in general. Does the patron need a copy of Frances and Joseph Gies' Life in a Medieval Village? Then they must either find it at an online or local bookseller, like [], or locate it in a library. If it's not there, you might even try Inter-Library Loan.

Primary Sources on the Internet

Novelist Anne Perry once researched newspaper accounts on the unseasonably hot weather during one U.S. Civil War battle. Perry described the daily activities of soldiers in the field under the unbearable heat to give readers a feeling of witnessing the event. [1] History researchers will want to examine not only secondary sources, such as the work of historians, but also primary sources, including newspapers, diaries, letters, artifacts, oral histories, and government records. Primary documents have begun wending their way onto the Internet. Reading the letters or diaries written by ordinary people living through extraordinary times gives one a visceral sense of the period like few other resources.


Many archives, such as state archives, are gold mines of primary documents and can often be accessed at no cost on the Internet. Archives stored in a public or academic library may require patrons to travel to the location, but the libraries usually impose no fee to use the archive, other than any copying costs. Obtaining access to a private archive requires permission by the owner.

Archival directories can help one locate not only primary historical resources, but also the library or institution that owns the item(s). …

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