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How Do Teachers Find and Evaluate Digital Historical Records?

Searching the Internet

As teachers, we are lucky that our modern digital age enables us to access countless primary source documents from our home or classroom.  This makes finding and using historical records much easier for both the teacher and the student.  The problem is that there are so many documents found in a typical search, results are often overwhelming for researchers.  Here are some suggestions on how to get the most specific results in an internet search:

1.  Start with a search engine. Use a detailed, specific search phrase for your request.  Searching on something general, like: “Civil War,” will result in sites about the American Civil War, Spanish Civil War, Civil War antiques, or books on the subject.  If the search phrase is more specific, such as “American Civil War battles” you will receive hits that give information on specific battles or battlefields.  To find historical records, it is often helpful to put “primary sources” or “records” right in your search phrase.  Using this more specific search, the first hit is a webpage titled “Civil War Primary Documents.”  

Continue to focus your search to be even more specific -- “Battle of Gettysburg primary sources.”  Better yet, narrow the search to “American Civil War New York infantry Antietam” to identify documents related to New York troops in a key battle covered in the curriculum.  The more focused you can make your search, the easier it will be to find the exact documents that you are looking for.  If you are looking for a specific type of document (images, video, map) click on the appropriate search engine link or button prior to entering your search phrase.

2.  Browse for documents – Start with a major repository of historic documents.  These collections could include museums, libraries and universities, national or state archives.  Some valuable starting points include:

  • National Archives: The National Archives houses records that document the activities of the federal government.  The “Teachers’ Resources” section is a good first stop where teachers may view documents with background information and lesson plans.  Use the online research tools to search this site. Hundreds of thousands of digital images are available.  
  • Library of Congress: The Library of Congress is one of the largest libraries in the world. This site makes available millions of digitized documents.  Be forewarned that searching the entire site can return thousands of hits that are difficult to scan through.  For best results, use a very specific search phrase and include the type or format of document you are looking for – for example, “Civil War battle photo.” An even better approach is to browse the collections links available on the site.  For example, clicking on the collection of “Selected Civil War Photographs,” will bring you to additional useful information.   Realize that the Library of Congress has extensive online audio, film, map, cartoon, and illustration resources. Make sure to select or define the type of document format you are looking for as you search. Again, a visit to the “Teachers” section, with its pre-collected documents and lesson plans, is a helpful first stop.
  • New York Public Library: The New York Public Library’s physical holdings are extensive and rival national collections. Researchers can see this for themselves by accessing hundreds of thousands of items from the Library’s holdings online. Look for the special section for teachers to help narrow down your search and make the best use of this large resource.
  • Internet Archive: This digital library gives access to the Prelinger Archive of moving images; as well as audio and text collections.  The “Wayback Machine” is a unique collection of over a billion archived internet pages that date as far back as 1996. The 2001 Red Cross historical records on pages            are an example of archived internet pages from this resource.
  • Making of America: This site is a joint project of Cornell University and the University of Michigan and is a collection of monographs, journal articles, and printed text from the 19th century.  This resource’s subject areas include: education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology.

3.  Start your browsing with a compiler of source links.  Some of the best include: 

  • Repositories of Primary Sources - This University of Idaho site lists over 5,000 categorized websites that give access to primary source documents.
  • UNESCO Archives Portal – This portal provides access to the websites of archives from around the world.
  • Digital History - A partnership between University of Houston and a number of leading historical agencies, this site gives links to digitized records and media, as well as lesson plans and activities.
  • Smithsonian Institution’s Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web - This site gives access to a searchable collection of international online exhibits.

4.  Search through database collections.  Usually these are available at large libraries, colleges or universities, but some are available online or through school libraries.  A few of the best history databases include:

  • American Civil War Letters and Diaries
  • ProQuest Historical Newspapers – gives access to full-text New York Times articles
  • AP Multimedia Archive
  • African American Newspapers of the 19th Century
  • America’s Historical Newspapers
  • The Gerritsen Collection:  Women’s History Online

Analyze the Search Results

Search “hits” must be evaluated and some of them eliminated, using background knowledge of the topic.  Students must be taught how to do this, because otherwise they will come back with erroneous information.  For example, one student insisted on using a thesis that said John Lennon helped people during World War II.  Even when the student was given accurate information about the dates (he was born in 1940), she at first refused to correct the thesis.  Finally, it was discovered that the student had accessed the New York Times database searching for “John Lennon” and had brought up a World War II era article about a different man by the same name.  Since she had “primary source proof,” she believed her teacher was wrong rather than that the document was wrong.  Students must be taught to analyze dates and compare data, and be made aware that different individuals could share the same name.

Know the Author

Anyone in the world can put information on a webpage, and there are all kinds of reasons why they do so.  Learning to interpret text online is not so different from what you do when you discern all the other types of information you encounter in your life – you analyze the source to determine if there is a predetermined bias or profit motive that underlies the information, and you intuit from that how reliable the information is.  There are those who wish to revise history for their own political or financial motives.  There are also those who are just misinformed themselves and pass that information on to others.  We must know the objectives of the presenter of any information we receive, so that we can make an educated determination as to its reliability.

Start by looking at all of the information provided in the search results.  You will receive one or more pages of “hits.”  On the page with the search results may be additional suggested sites.  For example, a recent search for “transcontinental railroad primary sources” gave a list of hits, a link to a related collection of primary sources (to the right of the hit list), and bolded suggestion links at the bottom for additional related searches.  Each hit consists of a hyperlink to the suggested site, a truncated sentence or bit of information from the site (words from your search phrase will be in bold), and a URL address.  The domain address gives you some clues regarding the purpose of the site:

  • .com is a commercial organization, organized to make a profit
  • .gov is a governmental agency
  • .edu is an educational institution
  • .org is a nonprofit organization

Once you click on the link and enter a site, identify the author and/or the purpose of the site by looking for an “About” or “Info” section.  You may have to click into the “Home” or “Welcome” page of the site before you can find this information.  It might take a few clicks and some careful scanning to find this information.  For example, on a recent visit to the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, an “about” link was not available on the index page.  At the bottom, a “Home” link led to a lengthy explanation of the types of information available, and at the bottom of all that information a link titled “About the CPRR Museum” finally gave author information.  It is especially important to examine author information for films found on websites.  Often, these clips will be a remix of primary and secondary sources.  It is crucial to teach students how to analyze the authenticity of these film sources.  Those films that list bibliographic information for the source with the film comments are useful for research or academic purposes.

Additional information about evaluating online sources can be found on university library websites like the Reference Division, of the Olin Kroch Uris Libraries at Cornell University. The online resource History Matters, created by the American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY) and the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (George Mason University) contains additional resource links to information about evaluating digital sources, citing digital sources, and copyright information.