Surfing for the Past: How to Separate the Good from the Bad
Teaching Digital History
This article was originally published in AHA Perspectives (May 2003) and is reprinted here with permission.
The Internet has become a vast, rich, and primarily free library. With the right website addresses or search strategies, you can quickly access a wealth of primary sources for studying almost any historical topic. For example, Harappa provides a comprehensive introduction to the ancient Indus culture as well as a rich collection of nineteenth-and twentieth-
century lithographs, postcards, and recorded speeches. The Internet African History Sourcebook offers extensive sources on the lives of African people in the Sub-Saharan region and wider Atlantic World and Indian Ocean basin. For U.S. historians, Library of Congress American Memory websites offer more than 100 collections with seven million digitized items, from African-American political pamphlets to California folk music, from baseball to the Civil War. Do History presents the entire 1,400 page diary, in facsimile and full-text, of eighteenth-century Maine midwife Martha Ballard with tools for decoding Ballard’shandwriting. And these examples barely scratch the surface of the thousands of excellent sites offering historical primary sources, including official documents, art, music, and archeological sites.
Many historians are exploring these resources and incorporating them into lectures and assignments or their own research. Many more are overwhelmed by the expansive and ever changing online archive, the challenges of sifting through so many lackluster or advertising-laden websites to find the treasures. Powerful search engines like Google make this work easier, but a search on “colonial American history” yields close to one million results, including syllabi, textbooks, and promotional material for historic locations.
Problems are exacerbated in the classroom, from the challenges of locating and evaluating history websites to newer concerns over skills for analyzing online primary sources. Recent studies show that college students use online resources heavily–almost seventy-five percent report using the Internet more than the library. Student papers and projects, however, often lack the critical evaluation of online resources demanded of more traditional sources. This presents a valuable opportunity–to teach critical thinking skills in the context of making effective use of Internet resources. This article offers strategies for evaluating websites, locating reliable resources, and helping students learn to analyze various kinds of online primary sources.
College students today are web savvy, but this does not automatically translate into critical use of online resources. Teaching students to evaluate websites is an essential first step. Here are several basic questions that can help structure the process. Answering these questions, even informally, requires students to examine a website’s reliability before using materials.
A good place to start is author or creator. Who created the website? Who hosts or publishes the site? What is the domain name (.edu, .org, .com., .gov, .net)? Sometimes this information is readily available; if not, email or contact information or a “credits” or “about” page may provide some clues. Look for information on when the site was created and updated as well.
What is the purpose of the website? To inform or present facts? Persuade or sell? Who is the intended audience? How accurate is the site? Are facts and opinions clearly identified? Are primary sources complete or edited? Are sources well documented? Are there spelling or grammatical errors? If the site offers links to other websites, are they working and reliable?
How credible is the website? One way to check this is to investigate what other websites and organizations link to it. For example, run a link check from Google by typing link and the url (“link: http://www.theaha.org/“). Or look at review sites, such as the Merlot Project or the Scout Report.
Finding Reliable Websites Quickly
Evaluating websites is an important skill, but a time consuming one. Shortcuts such as Merlot and the Scout Project are valuable resources. They do not, however, focus specifically on history. One such resource for teachers of U.S. History is History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, created by the Center for History and New Media (CHNM) and the American Social History Project. History Matters provides a starting point for exploring American history on the Web with 900 first-person historical documents in text, image, and audio. These include seventeenth-century grievances of the Wampanoag Indians, such as loss of land and unequal justice, as well as a nineteenth-century cartoon from the British weekly Punch satirizing the American concept of “liberty.” In an oral history interview a century later, Ed Idar discusses the struggle of Mexican Americans to end discrimination in Texas after World War II.
History Matters also provides an annotated guide to 700 high-quality history websites, including Library of Congress American Memory sites, resources from universities and libraries around the world, and online archives filled with letters, diaries, advertisements, films, and oral histories. Everything on History Matters is searchable by keyword, time period, and topic and additional resources provide tools such as teaching assignments and online discussion forums.
CHNM is also developing a website focused on world history resources. World History Matters will help world history teachers and students locate and analyze online primary sources, such as material culture and government documents. It will be publicly launched in fall 2003, but you can get a sneak preview at http://chnm.gmu.edu/whm.
Analyzing Primary Sources
Locating the wealth of primary sources available online meets many teaching and research needs, yet it also generates new questions. How can students learn to use so many different kinds of sources to understand the past? The History Matters feature “Making Sense of Evidence” is a set of tools designed to help students and teachers make effective use of online primary sources through “Making Sense of Documents” and “Scholars in Action.”
“Making Sense of Documents” provides strategies for analyzing online primary materials with interactive exercises and bibliographies of traditional and online sources. Each guide builds on strategic questions, such as “Who is talking” in oral history or “How do you make a flat map out of a round world?” for maps. The interactive exercises then challenge students to apply this new knowledge. For example, the first question in the guide to analyzing letters and diaries is “What are the characteristics of personal texts?” The exercise asks users to compare two published versions of the February 1861 diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, a member of South Carolina’s planter elite, and decide which was edited by a novelist, which by a professional historian. Explanations and rollovers help users compare specific passages and explore the complexities of analyzing personal texts.
“Scholars in Action ” segments show how scholars puzzle out the meaning of primary sources such as political cartoons and photographs. Users encounter a document and then listen to audio clips in which a leading scholar interprets the document and discusses strategies for analyzing that kind of evidence. For example, “Analyzing an 1804 Inventory” features an early nineteenth-century appraisal of the goods of a man named Thomas Springer. Users read the inventory (handwritten and transcribed) and then “ask” Barbara Clark Smith, Curator of Social History at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, a series of questions. Clark discusses the inventory and how she makes sense of it:
“It’s a document that’s created by the fact that wealth in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, is not so much in the form of things in the bank or things in the stock market, but real estate and actual moveable goods. . . . Like many of these inventories it begins with the wearing apparel of the deceased. . . coats, jackets, shirts, trousers, hats, boots, drawers. Those are valuable items; you can see that clothing are valuable. They’re valued here in 1804 at thirty dollars. You can look at the list of how things are valued and get a sense of what were expensive things and what were cheap things.”
Historians and history teachers need more tools for evaluating websites and for using online materials creatively in the lecture hall and the classroom. Online primary sources are opening access to exciting resources around the world, allowing students greater control over their learning and research agendas. Students are taking these opportunities in rapidly growing numbers, but are often using online resources without tools for critically analyzing websites or online sources. This creates an important learning opportunity. Teaching critical evaluation skills, especially for online resources, and requiring students to evaluate websites used for papers or projects are important first steps. Guiding students to reliable websites, such as American Memory or History Matters, helps them engage more quickly with artifacts of the past. And teaching strategies for analyzing a range of primary sources helps students begin to understand the past in more sophisticated and nuanced ways.