It cannot be denied that the Internet effects numerous aspects of my life. I most frequently find out what’s happening in the world by waking up my computer or checking my smart phone. I can communicate with friends and family on the other side of the country or the globe (or if I choose to, on the other side of the room, without even having to say a word). I can purchase books for my graduate courses and expect that they arrive at my house in two days. It stands to reason, then, that the Web should have some effect on how I conduct historical research.
To be quite honest, though, in order understand how it does, I have to step back. This is because, it is hard for me to imagine doing historical research without the use of the Internet. For the entirety of my graduate, undergraduate, and high school “careers” I have had relatively unfettered access to the World Wide Web. When I begin researching a topic for a paper or project, when I am looking for primary or secondary sources to support an argument, or when I want to compile multimedia resources for a presentation, I start by heading to a database such as Worldcat, Proquest, or the Library of Congress’ Digital Archives (sometimes I even head to Google first *shudder*).
In the end, to get access to the resources I am looking for, I often end up having to go to an actual library or archive. At the same time, it is possible to write an original, quality research paper without spending more than a few minutes in the library checking out books. Indeed, as William Turkel, Kevin Kee, and Spencer Roberts point out in “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive,” a greater challenge in the Age of the Internet, can sometimes be the volume of resources at our disposal. Thus, I believe that the Web is a net positive for historians (couldn’t resist), even as it has created some issues that need to be addressed.
To a certain degree, I have tended to question sources throughout my life. Who wrote this? When did the author write it? What is the author’s perspective? I give some credit to my parents and teachers who instilled this type of thinking in me. Over the years, I have become more skeptical over the years and have added more questions to the mental list I go through when I encounter a new source. Why did the author write this? Does the author have a bias? Is the author trying to persuade me of something? Are there gaps in the evidence? Does the author refer me to other sources? Admittedly, in part, my questions have become more skeptical because I have grown up and because I have practiced those skills as a historian. Yet I cannot deny that the Internet has affected the way I think about sources.
Some of the most positive aspects of the Internet, such as accessibility, diversity, and manipulability, can also provide challenges when attempting to ascertain the reliability of a source. On the other hand, these challenges of navigating the virtual world can be used for good. Students of history, or indeed any students, can be taught how to critically think about, assess and evaluate sources, whether they are textual, visual, or auditory in nature. The fact that students of history will increasingly do so in front of a screen, rather than in a library or archive, does not radically change the process of history. The most important tools of the historian are not paper and pens, leather-bound volumes, or even the wooden lectern. Rather, the essential tools for historians are the abilities to locate, compile, and critically evaluate sources; make compelling arguments based on available evidence; and communicate their arguments to fellow historians and the public. By retaining such tools, even as they cast a wider net, historians can strengthen their profession.
What do you think? Has the Internet impacted the way you conduct historical research? How does it affect the way you approach sources? Have the essential tools of historians changed in the digital age? Feel free to comment below.