"Where do you want to go today?": On-line resources for historical research
Paper to the Future of Our Past conference, McGill University
Montréal, 31 January 1999
Links checked and updated 13 November 2009
I've tried to keep the text as it was in 1999, but updating the links has required small changes to the text. Still, it's amazing how many of the resources mentioned in 1999 are still available in 2009.
REMEMBER: THIS PAPER DATES FROM 1999!
The original paper is available here.
José E. IGARTUA
2. Types of sites
A. Institutional Information Sites
B. Showcase Sites
C. Thematic Sites
D. Finding Aids
E. Primary Sources
3. Finding Aids
C. Thematic Guides
4. Primary Sources
A. Textual sources
B. Data Sources
C. Audio-visual Sources
In some wild flights of fancy, one sometimes dreams of a completely digital universe, in which all the world's books and archives have been made machine-readable and are accessible from the comfort of one's home or office. Ultimate access for everyone! We all know it's not going to happen, if only because knowledge production in our times is outpacing our ability for knowledge management. So I will not play the visionary. Instead, I want to present a brief overview of research resources accessible today in electronic form for historians and other scholars interested in the past. I would argue that the main categories of research resources available today are likely to remain the major categories of research resources available within the foreseeable future. In some cases, such as in libraries, the electronic revolution has already happened. In others, such as in archives, it is well underway and will not likely grow by leaps and bounds in the next few years.
The revolution is also well underway among students as well. On Monday, 25 January, the New York Times reported on a survey of U.S. college freshmen, 83% of whom used the Internet for research or homework.(1) I would hazard a guess that they are more proficient in the use of the Internet than their instructors. We had better catch up!
This paper intends to help in the catching up. My focus is on research resources. Most of these can be used for teaching as well, and some, such as the 'teaching with documents' site of the NARA(2) in the US, are explicitly designed with that goal in mind, but I have not specifically ystematically searched for sites designed mainly for educational purposes.
I start with a categorization of Web sites available for historical research and then go on to describe some types in more detail. The examples I offer are not the product of a systematic search of the Web; rather, they are culled from the accumulation of bookmarks in my Web browsers as I have encountered interesting sites over the last few years; in some cases, preparing this paper has led me to explore sites which I had not been aware of before. I would be glad to learn of categories or important examples I've missed.
2. Types of sites
There are no set conventions for classifying sites and for finding information about scholarly resources on the Net. For this purpose, search engines such as AltaVista(3) or directories such as Yahoo!(4) And Excite(5) are of some help, but are not always efficient guides. These general-purpose electronic finding aids are not designed with the needs of the scholar in mind. One should of course consult them, and one will occasionally find surprises, but an astute researcher(6) would also look at scholarly sites, such as those of professional associations(7) or university departments(8), for 'value-added' lists of sites of interest to the scholar.
The following categorization of Web sites is presented in ascending order of interest to the historian. It is very much an ad hoc scheme, and some sites may fall into more than one category.
A. Institutional Information Sites
The simplest kinds of Web sites of interest to the historian are those which only provide institutional information about the organization which created the site: mission statement, target clientele, location, address, hours of opening, contact persons, etc. Many History department Web sites fall in this category. They are useful for finding a colleague's e-mail or postal address, and can sometimes lead to an individual historian's page, which may indicate his teaching and research interests. The National Archives of Canada site also falls in this category, at least for the moment.
B. Showcase Sites
Some sites created by archives, libraries, or museums as institutional advertisement are also used to showcase some of their more famous holdings in order to draw visitors' attention. Perhaps the best known of these sites is that of the Louvre museum, which, besides institutional information, offers a short visit through the building's major sections, with representations of some of the major works the museum holds. Other institutions also use their Web site to give a glimpse of the breadth of their collections. The McCord Museum, for instance, allows visitors to search a mini-database of their holdings.(9)
The material showcased on these sites is usually of limited value for the scholar embarking on original research, since it is usually material already well-known. But these sites may provide leads for illustrative material or may draw attention to types of holdings with which the researcher was not familiar; how many scholars, for example, know that the collection of audiovisual documents preserved by the National Archives of Canada amounts to more than 270,000 hours of material?
C. Thematic Sites
Of somewhat greater interest are thematic sites. These gather in one place primary and secondary sources on a given topic. They may be produced by competent historians, competent amateurs, or incompetent historians and incompetent amateurs. They can usually be found by the general search engines. Examples include the Virtual Museum of New France,(10) the Adhémar site of the Canadian Centre for Architecture,(11) which gives access to a collection of maps and land titles for 17th and 18th century Montréal, the site on the Patriotes of Lower Canada,(12) or the site on Québec history textbooks put together by Paul Aubin.(13) Other thematic sites of interest to Canadian historians include an American site on what they call the French and Indian War.(14)
Some thematic sites, such as the Who Killed William Robinson? site(15) by Ruth Sandwell and John Lutz, of the University of Victoria, have an avowed pedagogical bent. So do the sites(16) created under the auspices of Industry Canada's SchoolNet Digital Collections program, which now number in excess of one hundred. These sites are prepared by community groups, students, or professional organizations, such as the Archives of the City of Montréal.(17) The Digital Collections tend to be on fairly narrow topics and offer a limited amount of material, useful for teaching purposes more than for large-scale research.
Elsewhere, probably the best known thematic site is Ed Ayers' Valley of the Shadow site,(18) which documents the pre-Civil War and Civil War history of two neighbouring communities, one on each side of the Mason-Dixon line. The site contains newspapers, public records, church records, military records, and private papers and diaries from the two communities. This site allows visitors to construct their own itinerary through the history of these two communities. The Center for History and the new Media at George Mason University,(19) in Virginia, offers a list of Web sites that it sponsors, or that are affiliated with it. It also offers links to the 'Best of the History Web' sites, which offers more examples of thematic Web sites.
On the whole, thematic sites are only of interest inasmuch as the theme they illustrate is of relevance to the historical research one wants to undertake. Some sites, such as the Valley of the Shadow site, or the Patriotes site and the Adhémar in Québec, allow some original exploration of historical material. Others are the product of research already conducted and provide only the documents deemed interesting by the site's authors. While interesting, such sites provide little opportunity for original research.
D. Finding Aids
Let me define the last two categories of sites before describing them in some detail. One category consists of finding aids, while the other comprises sites which offer primary sources.
Finding aids provide information about books in libraries and archival collections kept in archival repositories. The two major types of institutions of interest which are included in this category are governmental library and archival services, at various levels, and university library and archives catalogues and finding aids.
E. Primary Sources
Finally, the sites most useful for original historical research are those which offer collections of original documents in electronic form. We can group these sites into three categories, according to the type of documents they make available: text documents, data, and audio-visual material.
3. Finding Aids
Most scholars are already familiar with electronic finding aids in libraries, archives, and museums. Catalogues and finding aids have been produced in electronic form for about thirty years now, and it has been relatively simple to make these files accessible on the Internet. For researchers, having access to catalogues and finding aids through the Internet is a blessing: it allows at once for more systematic research strategies and for a quicker execution of these strategies. For many years now, scholars have been able to query not only their own institution's library catalogue, but also that of institutions with richer library holdings. Searching library catalogues in this manner can be a very effective complement to using bibliographical finding aids when one is at the beginning of a research project and needs to inventory previous work on the topic.
Most library catalogues are available in 'telnet' mode, which allows the user to query the library catalogue much as he or she would in the library itself. Increasingly, though, library catalogues can be consulted on Web sites, with query forms giving the user powerful search tools.
Let me review briefly the library catalogues of most use to the historian. These can often be located through a university library's Web site, such as UQAM's.(20)
First are the national and provincial libraries, such as the Bibliothèque nationale du Québec(21) the National Library of Canada,(22) the Library of Congress,(23) the British Library,(24) or the Bibliothèque nationale de France.(25) Because these are legal deposit libraries, they are invaluable for identifying new book publications in a given field, as well as for tracing cataloguing information for older works, as long as one is sure in which country the book was published. Anyone who has had to trace cataloguing information for copyright purposes will find these catalogues invaluable. One has to be aware, however, that these catalogues may not contain works published before library catalogues became machine-readable; for instance, BN-Opale, the on-line catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, only lists books since 1970 and periodicals since 1960.
Likewise, university library catalogues can help in tracing bibliographic information not available in one' s own university library. Information on connection to these catalogues is relatively easy to find on the Web, through universities' main Web pages. Look for example at how to access to the University of Toronto's library catalogue.(26) Outside of Canada, one can reach Harvard's library catalogue, Hollis.(27) Information about Berkeley's catalogue is also available.(28) One can consult the Oxford University catalogue;(29) likewise for Cambridge's.(30)
It would be pointless to prolong this list of examples of on-line library catalogues. For bibliographic search, they are invaluable.
Archives, as well as libraries, are increasingly making their finding aids available on-line. For the scholar, being able to identify collections of potential interest and to gauge their size, and eventually to contact the appropriate archivists by e-mail before planning a visit to an archives is of tremendous help in making one's research time more effective.
For research in Canadian archives, a good place to start is the list of Canadian Archival Resources on the Internet(31) at the University of Saskatchewan. Archives can be located alphabetically, by category (university, provincial, municipal, religious, other), and by region. This site also provides a link to the Canadian Council of Archives's directory,(32) which contains information about more than 520 institutions, including general descriptions of their holdings.
Major government archives have Web-accessible finding aids. The National Archives of Canada will launch ArchiviaNet in April 1999, and a demo version is being presented at this conference. The Archives nationales du Québec's search engine is called Pistard, which was first used in their reference rooms and is now available on the Web. Provincial archives in B.C. and Alberta offer the Interprovincial Archival Union Lists [in 2009 known as the Canadian North West Archival Network],(33) which can be searched by indexes or keywords. Some Canadian municipal governments also have put some finding aids on the Web. See for instance the Montréal archives site(34).
In the United States, the National Archives provides an on-line finding aid.(35) France offers a directory of French archival institutions,(36) and the Public Record Office in the United Kindgom is beginning to put its catalogue on-line;(37) for the moment, it only contains "references to selected policy records of 20th-century British Government departments."(38)
Many universities also offer on-line access to their archival holdings. For instance, Mc Gill's archives provide access to its catalogues of text, photograph, film, and audio collections.(39) UQAM's archives Web site includes a list of holdings of private collections, with summary descriptions of their contents.(40) Memorial's Maritime History Archives offer an on-line catalogue through the Web.(41) Queen's University offers access to its electronic catalogue(42).
Some museums also offer on-line access to their finding aids, though this seems to be less frequent than for archives. The Canadian Heritage Information Network provides a country-wide collective database of museum holdings,(43) but access is by subscription. It is probably easiest to use in a museum. In Québec, the Web site for the Société des musées québécois offers a search engine to find relevant institutions, which then leads to a brief description of the museum and, when available, to the museum's Web site.(44)
D. Thematic Guides
Finally, some institutions offer thematic guides on the Web. Examples are the National Library of Canada's Web guides to the history of labour in Canada(45) and for the study of political science.(46)
4. Primary Sources
For the historian, one of the most promising aspects of the Web is access to a growing number of corpora of primary sources. These primary sources may be classified in three categories: textual sources, data sources, and audio-visual sources.
A. Textual Sources
A number of research centres have put together impressive collections of textual corpora, either from manuscripts or from published works. In most instances, these corpora pertain to famous authors or historical figures, which justifies the effort expended in putting these documents into electronic form. For example, French-language publications available at the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia include works by Voltaire, Descartes, Corneille, Racine, Stendhal, and Zola.(47) The Center's 40,000 humanities texts represent twelve languages. One of the earliest text archives, at Oxford,(48) has taken a lead in implementing the SGML standard for electronic text structuring. It holds 2,500 literary texts, corpora, or reference works, in 25 languages, ranging from Aeschylus and Jane Austen to Yeats [it has no authors whose name begins with Z!]. It provides full-text search of its holdings. The University of Chicago houses the American and French Research project on the Trésors de la langue française, a joint effort with the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique.(49) It holds 2000 texts from the 13th to the 20th century. It offers a sophisticated search engine to locate texts by author or period or keywords; it allows search for co-occurrences of words or phrases. One of its major corpora is the Encyclopédie. Its French texts include Old and Middle French texts, and pamphlets and periodicals from the 1848 revolution. ARTFL also holds documents in languages other than French: for instance, a collection of Medieval Italian texts, including Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. The ARTFL project is described on the ARTFL Website.(50)
Another source of canonical literature is the Marxists Internet Archive, a collaborative effort which brings together electronic versions of Marxist texts and links to other sites containing such documents.(51) Recent accessions include vol. III of Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution as well as vol. 2 of his Military Writings.
In the United States, the Library of Congress has made available a good part of the George Washington Papers (147,000 images).(52) This is part of its American Memory series of 43 collections, which cover constitutional history, technological history (Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse), and social history, particularly the Great Depression in literature and photographs. For the sports-minded, the Library of Congress site offers a collection of 2100 early baseball cards, available in high resolution uncompressed TIFF format for the patient Web surfer. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress presents "Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904."(53) The 21 films are actually viewable on the Web, but since they are many megabytes in length, they are best 'screened' from a high-speed connection. New techniques may help here. Quicktime formats appear to be more compact than MPEG files. This problem will be reduced somewhat by the use of the RealMedia format, albeit with a loss of quality.
For students, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration presents the Digital Classroom,(54) with archival materials from its holdings linked to lesson plans correlated to the U.S. National History Standards.
In Canada, the National Library is putting a number of texts on the Web. The full text of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences [the Massey Commission], including selected letters and briefs submitted to the Commission, is available. For an instant insight into how Canada and Québec have changed over the last fifty years, have a look at the Fédération des Sociétés Saint-Jean Baptiste brief(55) and compare it with the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste de Montréal's current political outlook!(56) The National Library also has a collection of formally published Canadian online books and journals.(57) The collection includes the Debates of the House of Commons, 1994-1997. This collection, as well as the others, can be searched by keyword, but I've had some difficulty with the search engine.(58)
This overview is far from exhaustive. For a glimpse at other available textual material collections, consult the University of Waterloo library's guide to electronic texts and books.(59) Princeton University Library also offers a list of electronic text centres.(60) If you are interested in classic literary texts, there is a good chance that there is an electronic edition of it somewhere, which can usually be searched by keyword.
Scholarly journals are also being transferred to electronic format, notably in the JSTOR project, initiated by the Mellon Foundation, which is financed by institutional and individual membership. The first hundred years (1892-1993) of the William and Mary Quarterly, for instance, are available in that format, and the early years can be searched in the demonstration database available free of charge. The text is presented in facsimile format. Look for instance at the Meade Family History, vol. 13, no 2 (oct. 1904), p. 79, for an interesting contemporary depiction of Governor Murray.(61)
B. Data Sources
A second major category of historical sources available on the Internet for research is numerical data. The conservation of numerical data is an ancient practice by electronic standards; in the early days of mainframe computers, numbers were much more easily stored than other forms of information. The Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research(62) at the University of Michigan began in the 1960s to archive social science data, often historical in nature. Its collections are available by subscription and offer what ICPSR calls "the world's largest archive of computer-based research and instructional data for the social sciences."(63) The University of Minnesota's Integrated Public Use Microdata Series [IPUMS] contains 25 national individual-level samples from 13 U.S. censuses from 1850 to 1990.(64)
Some of the data resources available in electronic form have restricted access, while others are open to all. In Canada, for instance, some basic statistics are available on the Statistics Canada Web site.(65) Likewise, the Bureau de la Statistique du Québec offers recent economic indicators for the province.(66) But a great deal of valuable research material is available under restricted access for qualified scholars. The CANSIM database of Statistics Canada is accessible to students and faculty of universities which subscribe to it. It contains at last count 722,074 chronological series of economic, social, and cultural indicators, though most of the series go back to the 1960s or 1946 at best. The Data Centre at the Carleton University Library holds machine-readable files of responses to Gallup polls from the early 1950s onward, as well as data from Canada's General Social Surveys.(67) Queen's University's library holds data from Decima, Environics, and CROP surveys from the late 1970s on.(68) The York Institute for Social Research, established in the 1960s, maintains a data archive with data on "major national election studies, quality of life surveys, studies of attitudes toward education, health, housing, multiculturalism, recreation and other social policy questions."(69) The Canadian Association of Public Data Users (CAPDU), which is mainly comprised of data archivists in Canadian university library and archives, maintains a discussion list(70) and has repeatedly lobbied for the creation of a Canada Union List of Machine-Readable Data, a project first put forward in the early 1970s.
In the same manner, large-scale social science research projects, such as the Programme de recherche en démographie historique at the Université de Montréal, and the BALSAC project at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi,(71) both of which have over the years gathered massive data sets on the Québec population, can make their data available to qualified researchers, subject to strict ethics and confidentiality rules.
C. Audio-visual Sources
The last type of sources available for historical research on the Internet pertain are audio-visual materials. Other papers in this session have made obvious the richness of material available in this form. I've already alluded to film material at the Library of Congress. Let me just mention a few Canadian sites of interest. The Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature hosts the digital collection of the Hudson's Bay Company.(72) The collection contains iconographic material from Inuit, aboriginal, and metis cultures as well as artifacts related to the fur trade, to exploration and navigation, as well as fine art. The British Columbia Archives have a collection of 44,500 items with available on-line images, including photographic collections and selected works by Emily Carr.(73) The Bibliothèque nationale du Québec offers 360,000 pages of books and musical partitions, 12,000 pages of artists's works, 26,000 images and maps, and 1,500 sound recordings.(74) The Archives nationales du Québec Web site has a small collection of audio-visual documents from their Trois-Rivières branch, which you will find through the 'Archives en vue' button. You can hear the voice of Maurice Duplessis in 1955 extolling the merits of Québec agriculture as a rampart against social disruption.(75)
Browsing through these sites will make it very obvious that the Web is for the moment better suited to still images than for sound or moving pictures, which are contained in much larger files. It will be some time before bandwidth is large enough to handle video files quickly, though progress is constantly being made with compression techniques. Telephone and cable companies are beginning to offer high-speed connections to Internet, but it remains to be seen what effect the proliferation of such connections will have on Internet traffic flow.
In conclusion, I hope this brief tour of Internet resources available for historical research will have given you a taste for exploration. The Internet is still far from making research in archives and in libraries obsolete, but it can make such research much more productive. Internet-based primary sources, whether they be textual, numerical, or audio-visual, can also provide a rich set of teaching opportunities. But as for any other type of information support, Internet resources have to be used in a critical fashion, assessing authenticity and accuracy before proceeding to analysis.
I have put links in endnotes rather than as links in the text, to avoid making the text full of underlined text strings.
1. See the message by Richard Jensen on H-MMEDIA, 25 January 1999, citing the article. This no longer seems to be available on the H-Net archives at http://www.h-net.org/. The New York Times article may be found at http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/25/us/college-freshmen-s-internet-use-a-way-of-life-but-disparities-emerge.html?scp=1&sq=January+25%2C+1999+freshmen&st=nyt
3. http://www.altavista.com. For Canadian sites, visit http://www.altavista.ca.
6. See the discussion of search strategies in Jim Carroll and Rick Broadhead, 1998 Canadian Internet Directory & Research Guide (Scarborough, Ont., Prentice-Hall, 1997), 1-87.
7. See for example the Canadian Historical Association Web site at http:/www.cha-shc.ca, which has links to other professional associations of historians under its 'Resources' heading.
8. See the sites of Université Laval (http://www.hst.ulaval.ca), UQAM (http://www.histoire.uqam.ca"), University of Victoria (http://www.history.uvic.ca) as examples. The University of Toronto History Department Web site (http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/history/ also offers useful information.
14. I have excluded from mention sites which promote CD-ROM.
20. The Quebec university network offers a Z39.50 search engine for its member universities. See the ZPortal at https://fr.crepuq.vdxhost.com/zportal/
33. For British Columbia see http://www.memorybc.ca/, and http://victoria.tc.ca/Resources/bchistory-archives-bc.html#CNWANT for the Canadian North West Archival Network.
47. The Electronic Text Center has become The Scholars' Lab: http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/scholarslab/
49. http://humanities.uchicago.edu/ARTFL/ARTFL.html. Available in French at http://atilf.atilf.fr/tlf.htm.
57.The 1999 page was not found in 2009.
58. The digitized House of Commons Debates are now housed on Early Canadiana Online under "Reconstituted Debates": http://www.canadiana.org/ECO.
59. The 1999 page was not found in 2009, but this University of Waterloo Library link provides a list of books online: http://ereference.uwaterloo.ca/display.cfm?categoryID=31&catHeading=Books%20/%20Journals#BooksAvailableOnline.
61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1915971?seq=7&Search=yes&term=History&term=Meade&term=Family&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoAdvancedSearch%3Fq0%3DMeade%2BFamily%2BHistory%26f0%3Dti%26c0%3DAND%26q1%3D%26f1%3Dall%26c1%3DAND%26q2%3D%26f2%3Dall%26c2%3DAND%26q3%3D%26f3%3Dall%26Search%3DSearch%26ar%3Don%26sd%3D1904%26ed%3D1904%26la%3D%26jo%3D%26dc.History%3DHistory&item=2&ttl=2&returnArticleService=showArticle&resultsServiceName=doAdvancedResultsFromArticle I found this by searching for 'Quebec' or Québec' or 'Montréal' or 'Montreal' in the text.
64. Now  known as IPUMS-USA: http://usa.ipums.org/usa/
71. See the PRDH site at http://www.genealogie.umontreal.ca/en/ and the BALSAC project at http://www.uqac.ca/balsac/. The the Inter-university Research Centre on Population [ IREP] mentioned in the 1999 paper is now defunct.
75. http://www.banq.qc.ca/histoire_quebec/branche_sur_notre_histoire/discours_duplessis.jsp offers a choice of four Duplessis speeches; the one referred to in the text is the last one. In November 2009 I had to seach Google on ""Maurice Duplessis" site:banq.qc.ca" to find the speech, as a search in the BANQ site was fruitless.