Internet Research Resources for Historical Writersby Greg Knollenberg
The Internet Writing Journal, March 1999
There is no question that the Web contains more information on current news and events than any other medium. It also contains a large and growing amount of historical reference material. This material covers everything from archaeology to modern American history. As with most online research, the key to historical research on the Internet is knowing where and how to search. Writers and researchers need to take special care with historical reference information to ensure that historical dates, facts and figures are accurate. Keep a core list of sites at your disposal through bookmarks that you trust so you can check or validate any information you find. In addition to facts and figures, historical websites can also be a source for detailed information about the living conditions and lifestyles in a given time period. This article will guide you to some of the best general historical resources and sites from which you can find more historical resources on your own.
Finding Historical Resources
The most common method for finding historical information is to use a search engine or directory. For information on using search engines, be sure to read "Effective Use of Search Engines", which will give you an overview of the search process. In addition to the search engines, history website directories and specific sections of the major search engines can be used to find online historical information.. There are also sites which link only to historical sites. Some of the best of these sites include: History Virtual Library, The Reference Desk, H-net, Britannica History, U.S. History links and the IPL2 History.
General online research resources such as online dictionaries and web encyclopedias may also contain information that historical writers need. For information on finding general research resources, refer to the "Jump Start Your Online Research" article from the May 1998 issue of The Internet Writing Journal. Reference Resources for Writers also provides links to hundreds of valuable online reference sites broken into categories for easy surfing.
The most useful sites that you will reference frequently are the sites that provide a large amount of history content and sites that link to numerous other historical websites. Some premium history website are listed below.
PBS Online provides numerous features about events throughout history which are extensions of its television series. Each series is extremely well-done with rich content and multimedia. The PBS website also includes The American Experience, which contains content-heavy features about events in U.S. History. Another television-based site, is A&E's Biography.com which provides information on famous people throughout history. The site is very thorough containing Biographies of over 20,000 personalities. Another valuable site for researchers also derived from television, The History Channel, provides a comprehensive history search engine, regular features, This Day in History and information about what is showing on the cable television version of the History Channel.
History Today, a monthly print historical magazine, has a website which contains a large collection of high quality articles on major historical subjects with new articles added to the website each month. The site also includes a comprehensive links section. Another excellent site, HistoryNet is produced by Cowles Media, a publisher of numerous historical magazines including American History, America's Civil War, British Heritage, Military History, Vietnam, World War II and others. The website features articles from these magazines, as well as online discussion forums and a "Today in History" feature.
Another resource, History Buff, contains a search engine of history websites. The search engine contains links to historical subjects including: the Civil War, sports, presidential history, disasters and the Old West. HyperHistory Online is a unique site which allows visitors to reference historical information from a virtual timeline. Other valuable general history websites include: the Historical Text Archive, Historical Documents on the Internet and The History Place.
Specific Historical Sites
History information on the Web is provided by several different types of websites: university websites, websites for organizations, commercial sites, museum websites, websites dedicated to a particular monument, local history websites, historical building websites, historical events and personal homepages. Because there are thousands and thousands of these websites (most of them having web addresses that are difficult to memorize) it is important to bookmark and use the major history sites and history link sites mentioned above to get to these more specialized resources. These specialized sites can be very rewarding. If you are searching for information on a specific landmark or event from a specific geographical region, you may be surprised at the information you can recover from local websites produced by local colleges and libraries. For example, a site about the Huron Lightship Museum contains historical details on the Huron Lightship, the last lightship on the Great Lakes which was retired in 1970. Its resting place in Pine Grove Park Port Huron, Michigan is now a national historic monument. The website created by Oakland Community College, a local university, provides a detailed history of the lightship. This is just an example of the many small historical gems that can be found on the Web. Often these local websites will also point visitors to books, publications and other resources where they can obtain more information about the historical subject.
Yahoo! provides an excellent means to find these specific history sites, with thousands of links broken down into categories which allow you to search by region, including foreign countries and U.S. States to pinpoint the historical resource you need. Yahoo also allows you to search for historical resources by region and time period.
Websites that cover a large general topic such as sports, will often provide historical data and information on that subject, as well.
There are many sites devoted to American History, including the smaller sites for a specific museums, events or monuments. A site that stands out from the crowd is PBS's American Experience, which contains regular comprehensive features on events in U.S. history based on its television programming. Recent features have included: Influenza 1918, Meltdown at Three Mile Island, the Hoover Dam and Race for the Superbomb. Another site, The Hitchhiker's Guide to American History, contains a selection of web links to some of the best sites covering American history.
The Library of Congress contains an enormous amount of information about American history with its American Memory feature which contains over 1 million digitized items including text, pictures and sounds. Another site, The Old West Links Page, contains a large collection of links to sites about the Old West. Additional references on American history include Signpost, and American History at About.com.
There is a vast amount of resources online dedicated to World History. An excellent reference to begin with is BBC Education: Modern World History which provides information on historical events in the 1900s, as well as a valuable timeline of modern history. Another website, Argos, which focuses on a far earlier time period, is a search engine for ancient and medieval internet sites. In addition, the History Channel International website provides information on world history and links to excellent world history resources.
More world history websites focusing on a specific country, event or war can be found by following the links on resources such as Yahoo! history, Ancient History and Medieval History.
Other Specialty History Websites
Specialty history sites exist for a variety of subjects. Often around the time of special events, such as Black History Month, several excellent websites devoted to the event will appear. Commercial websites often announce new features and content devoted to the event to increase traffic to their website or sell products.
Some excellent specialty history websites include Century, which is an ABC News feature on stories making the news this century; Time 100, a look at this century's most influential people; and The Guardian's Guide to the Millennium, an incredible website which began covering the last 1000 years over a five hundred day period. Each day, a new page is added which covers two years of the Millennium and provides valuable information about historical events and links to related websites.
A useful newsletter, the Scout Report, is a weekly update about new sites that are useful for researches. The newsletter is scholarly in tone, and lists many excellent research sites and can received by email or read on the website.
While the amount of historical information online is widespread, you may want to use an encyclopedia or desk reference first when looking for quick facts such as dates or names. The Internet can be used for these facts as well, however, through online encyclopedias such as Expedia and Britannica Online. A great deal of researching is just putting in the time. You will find an enormous variety from one reference to the next; one site for a monument or memorial may provide detailed information on every aspect of its history. while another such site may only provide a map on how to get there and the hours the memorial or museum is open. Whatever your subject area is, you will have to deal with the current inadequacies of the Web, but the sheer volume of information available to you outweighs any disadvantages. In addition, the Internet can also be used to find appropriate historical book and print publications about your subject. Make a commitment to online research and your book or short story should reap the benefits.
**Greg Knollenberg is the CEO of Writers Write, Inc.