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How to Use Electronic Resources

(Excerpted from William K. Storey, Writing History: A Guide for Students, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press).

Use Electronic Resources in the Library. When you are beginning historical research, the time will come when you find that you have exhausted the reference collection of your library's reading room.  You will have accumulated a list of titles, but you will have to start looking in the library catalogue for the titles of books that are kept in the stacks.  If you still do not feel comfortable searching your library's catalogue, ask a librarian for help.

Start to Explore Your Library's Catalogue.  Library catalogues can be a tremendous help in your search for works on a subject.  Most catalogues are now computerized and accessible online.  The key to searching a computerized catalogue is understanding the way in which the information is organized.  Most items in the library have an author, a title, or a subject heading.  In order to find the right headings, start with a keyword search.  In a keyword search, it is important to use distinctive words.  Type in >longitude< and you will get many entries.  A narrower set of entries will be revealed if your keyword search includes the following unique words: >longitude history harrison<  This keyword search will bring you to several works, each of which will have subject headings.  Click on the subject headings to link to other works on the same subject.  Click on author and title links to help identify related works.

Explore Other Library Resources That Are Online.  Libraries subscribe to many different online services.  Small college libraries cannot afford the kinds of subscriptions that are available to historians at big research universities.  Even so, there are several types of services that are commonly available.  Encyclopedias and dictionaries are now often available online.  So are back issues of historical journals, thanks to Project Muse and JSTOR.  Indexes of articles and unpublished dissertations are also available by library subscription.  Some online index search services, like ProQuest, FirstSearch, and EBSCo, will search through multiple databases that used to exist only in print form, such as Books In Print, Dissertation Abstracts, Humanities Index, and Social Science Index.  Some online search services even deliver the full texts of articles.  If articles are not immediately available, they may be requested through Interlibrary Loan.  Some Interlibrary Loan services now deliver articles electronically.

Be Skeptical about Other Online Resources. One of the good things about beginning an electronic search with library resources is that librarians will only make available catalogues, indexes, and references that are worthwhile.  There are many worthy sources available online that lie beyond the library's website, out on the Worldwide Web.  There are also many unworthy sites.  The trick is to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy.

It takes a great deal of time and effort to publish a book or journal article.  Typically, works of history that are published must meet with the approval of editors and peer reviewers before they are printed and distributed.  For this reason, many students have gotten into the habit of trusting published sources.  However, publishing on the Internet can be done cheaply and quickly, with no controls for quality.  There are virtually no barriers to publishing a website.

The best way to look for a website is to use a high-quality search engine.  Today many academics prefer the Google search engine, at http://www.google.com/.  Other search engines exist, too, and many more may be added in the next few years.  Many of the same principles used to search electronic library catalogues apply to search engines, too.  (Check the search engine's home page for advice on how it looks for websites.)  Search for keywords by using distinctive words.  Then, when you have some results, don't just click on the first two or three Internet addresses; scrutinize the entire list of hits.  Search engines do not necessarily organize their results in terms of quality.

There are a number of ways to determine the quality of a website.

  • Beware of domain names.  Websites containing <.edu> <.ac> <.gov> or <.org> were created by people affiliated with academic, government, or non-profit institutions.  At the very least, the authors of the sites had to be accepted or hired by the institutions.  At most, these websites may represent the views of these organizations.  On the subject of longitude, there is one such institutional website: England's Royal Observatory, located at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, has published a highly informative website, complete with illustrations: <http://www.rog.nmm.ac.uk/museum/harrison/index.html>.  By contrast to this site, which contains <.ac>, websites containing <.com> or <.co> are commercial sites.  Anybody with a credit card can publish one.  This is not to say that all commercial sites are bad, or all academic sites are good, but this is one way to begin to verify the information on a website.
  • Has the website also been published in print?  There are many sites that began as print sources, or are published in both print and electronic editions.  In these cases, the quality is likely to be higher, because print tends to have higher quality controls.
  • Is the information on the website available elsewhere?  There are now some outstanding websites published by historical archives.  In these cases, it would be possible to travel to the archives to verify the information published online.  In the case of eighteenth-century British navigation, one such source would be the journal of Sir Joseph Banks, who traveled with Captain Cook and kept a record of their discoveries in Australia.  Banks' journals can be found online at <http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/> thanks to the State Library of New South Wales, Australia.
  • Assess the website skeptically.  There are wonderful websites that are very useful for historians.  There are also websites that are utterly useless, and many that are just mediocre.  How can you tell the difference?  Assess the tone of the website.  Is it scholarly, or is it ranting?  Does it present evidence that can be verified, or does it make claims that are unverifiable?  Is it written by scholars whose names and affiliations you recognize, or is it written by people without reputations? 
  • When in doubt, speak with your professor.  None of the criteria listed above can be used solely to determine the reliability of a website.  Taken together, they can help.  If you still have doubts about historical sources that you have found on the Internet, present your source to your professor, even just by sending an e-mail message containing the Internet address of the website in question.  It is better to ask about a source before you write the paper, than to be asked about it after you have turned it in.

Citing the Internet.  Standards for citing sources on the Internet have not yet evolved completely.  Even so, Internet citations follow the same principles as other citations: they should give readers all the information they need to find a source.  Internet citations should give the full Universal Resource Locator (URL) address of the source, not just the homepage.

As much as it is important to follow the same principles as other citations, it is also important to acknowledge that Internet citations are different from print sources. Print sources are usually permanent; they can almost always be located in a major research library.  Internet sites may change or disappear.

There are several ways in which historical citations can address the Internet's impermanence.  A citation should always give the date of publication and also the date of retrieval.  That way, readers will know that you saw content that was available at that time.  Should a reader challenge your use of a source, it will be helpful for you to have a printout of the Internet site from the day on which you used it.

There are also minor ways in which the Internet is different for purposes of citation.  First you may give conventional citation information, such as author, title, and date of publication.  But then you must also give an Internet address, and some Internet sites have addresses that are long and unattractive.  Historians have taken to placing Internet addresses in angle brackets, like these: < >.  Follow the Internet address with the date on which you retrieved the information placed in regular parentheses, like these: ( ) .

Let us now take a look at a well-known historical website, Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, written by Edward Ayers, Anne Rubin, and William Thomas.  This website contains reproductions of many primary sources, including photographs, letters, and newspaper articles that pertain to the U. S. Civil War.  When citing a newspaper article from the Valley of the Shadow, use the following method:

42. "The Davis Pronunciamento," Baltimore American, 1 Oct. 1860, p.2, col.1.  Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/vshadow2/articles/balt.so60.html#10.1.60> (25 Sept. 2002).