Historical Research in the Internet Age

by | Sep 16, 2022 | The historian craft | 0 comments

Things have changed dramatically in the past nearly fifty years since I entered university. During my freshman year, I was required to write my first research paper. It was as semester long project that needed to be submitted in typewritten form with only a couple of corrections per page (I just forget how many were allowed but it seems like there could be no more than three). I didn’t type so I gave my handwritten paper to a typist who had to type what I wrote, making no corrections—not to the spelling of words, improper syntactical errors, even down to the punctuation. It all had to be my own work. When I received back the typewritten paper which I paid for, it was full of errors—my errors. I spent the weekend before the paper was do meticulously re-typing the paper using the “hunt and peck” method. It was an ordeal.

In my undergrad and during my first grad degree, hunt and peck was the method of production. Add to that the method of research. No computer to facilitate things and certainly no internet. You had to physically visit a library, look for books in a card catalog or scan the shelf, which led to other books, which led to still other books and so on. If you needed journals or newspapers or other research material . . . you might have to visit multiple other libraries. It was all very time consuming and tedious.

By the time I got into my PhD program in 2000, I had a laptop, with spellcheck, which made the writing portion easier. The software programs then available automatically figured out where on the page the footnotes should go and adjusted the spacing accordingly. Footnotes on a typewriter were a nightmare! The programs even suggested syntactical issues in the paper. I was in hog heaven! You still needed to proofread your work, but you could make the corrections without retyping the whole project.

The internet was still rudimentary in those days, using dial-up connections. Two decades later, the internet is lightning fast and is awash with research tools that will allow the historian to sit in the comfort of an easy chair doing serious historical work. Among the tools available, are a vast array of books, magazines, and newspapers etc. on hundreds of internet sites that are searchable through common search engines like Google, long my preferred search portal.

Rare, out of print books can be read or even downloaded for later use at sites like Google Books, Archive.org or HathiTrust. Moreover, in addition to finding the book in question, these materials can be searched within their contents for names and ideas. Research that before the internet would take hours and hours of difficult labor, can now be discovered with just a mouse click. For example, I discovered that an individual I am studying who died in 1918, spoke at a conference in 1904. I found the text of his paper in a series of books published in 1908 containing the papers of the 1904 conference. His paper appeared in volume fifteen, but perseverance brought the correct volume to light which contained the paper that I could read.

Moreover, this man pastored numerous churches from the time he graduated from university with a D. B. (Bachelor of Divinity), so I am in the process of tracking down the details of his various pastoral ministries. As it happens the man, an important Baptist missionary statesman of the early twentieth century, wrote an autobiography which is available on some of these various sites. However, the fine details of his pastorates were omitted from the autobiography, but many details can be discovered through period newspapers available online at websites like Newspaper.com and NewspaperArchive.com, both available with a subscription. What a time in which to live!

Doing biographical research is supported by websites like Ancestry.com, a subscription site, and a plethora of family specific websites, run by a family member, and filled with genealogical data about the family. The man I am studying went to the University of Chicago before he became a Baptist minister. Another man from the same hometown with the same surname also went to the U of Chicago a few years earlier and also became a Baptist clergyman. Turns out they were cousins, which I discovered when the family specific site manager sent me a short family tree explaining the relationship! Moreover, Ancestry.com taps into things like census details, passport approvals, travel manifests, obituaries, etc. In many cases, one can discover the graves of people of interest on Findagrave.com, although the man I am studying does not have his grave noted there.

Even things that don’t show up on larger collections like Google Books, can be discovered in narrower collections uploaded by universities, etc. on their library websites. If you are studying slavery, many primary source documents may be found at the Samuel J Mays collection at Cornell University or if you need missions conference reports, many are available in the Yale Library digital collection. Additionally, in this digital age, if a document or pamphlet hasn’t yet been scanned, many librarians will scan these documents (often for a fee) and email them to you, thus making it unnecessary to travel to physically read the item in question. As a graduate of Southern, the archivist there has been very helpful in doing this kind of assistance for me over the years. Some libraries will then add these newly scanned documents to their expanding digital collection, increasing their availability to other scholars.

None of this is to say that one may not need to travel to do “boots on the ground” research. Some documents, e. g. personal papers, may never be digitalized, and must be accessed directly at whatever repository holds them, but who knows, maybe this will change one day. Travel to repositories is still necessary to be thorough if you are writing a Ph.D. dissertation, but for a journal article, sometimes that level of detail may be unnecessary. The man that I have been researching lately died in 1918, a few years before the outbreak of the fundamentalist controversy in the Northern Baptist Convention. On what side would he have fallen in the conflict? Lines were being drawn in the early 1900s and I discovered reference to a “Personal Manifesto” that he made in 1917 that may shed light on this very question. Few denominational newspapers are available online, so at this point I may have to travel to discover the actual manifesto. But just finding out that it exists is a significant find.

As far as contemporary research, one still needs to look at physical books if they are recently published, although that is changing too with recent books available through digital portals requiring a subscription, but journal articles can be accessed at numerous websites like JStor or EBSCO, which also need to be accessed through libraries that pay for the right to use them. Most seminaries have access to EBSCO, and many will have JStor, but living in Minneapolis, I have a membership with the Hennepin County Library who has an online portal to JStor so that I, as a library card holder, can have free access.

I have often said that before one can find a needle in a haystack, one has to determine just how big the haystack actually is. Thanks in no small part to the internet, these haystacks have become both larger and smaller—larger because there is more data to sift and smaller because the data is searchable! As an example of what can be done with this kind of internet work, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary has just published my essay “Baptists and Freemasonry: A Conflicted History.” You can access the journal here and my essay here. I used the substantial collection in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and the internet to discover the particulars under consideration. What a day to live and research!

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. In 1990, the Lord gave Jeff and his wife a wonderful son who has special needs. Due to issues related to the pandemic, Jeff has had to curtail his travel plans to concentrate his energies on loving his wife and son. When things change, Jeff hopes to again travel internationally to train Christian leaders. He continues to publish in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, and freemasonry as well as Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; as well as Zambia and Kenya in Africa. He also speaks in US churches as the opportunities arise.

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