Should Historians Utilize Online Sources?

On the H-SHEAR discussion network earlier this week, Dan Feller called out historians who cite non-standard sources. He gave three examples from two books and one journal article that focused on the Jacksonian era. The two books cite non-institutional websites as their source for several of Andrew Jackson’s presidential messages instead of the standard sources: James D. Richardson’s multivolume collection of presidential messages or digital images of the originals, available online at the Library of Congress American Memory site.

Feller concluded his critique with the following observations:

Back in the day when books and journals were more aggressively copy-edited, footnotes like this would not have reached print.  The website citations violate standards of both accuracy and permanence. Websites come and go, and the minute these ones go dark or change their URL, as some cited in [David S. Reynolds’] Waking Giant have already done, the references to them become worthless.  The deeper and more alarming problem is that all these citations are essentially random, justified by nothing more than the authors’ momentary convenience and enabled by their credulity.  You can find anything on the internet, authentic or fraudulent.  What does it say about our standards that reputable authors now think it acceptable practice to credit, quote, and cite any version of a text that they happen to stumble upon, without bothering to check its origin, completeness, or accuracy?   These authors not only cited bad sources, but trusted them.  That puts us but one step away — if that — from “I saw it somewhere, so it must be true,”  a research standard that erases the only firm line separating legitimate historians from cranks and nutcases.

History is an evidence-based discipline, and when we forsake sound practices in the use and citation of evidence we forfeit our claims to be reliable purveyors of historical knowledge.  Alas, it seems that too many people just can’t be bothered to do it right anymore.

Feller has a legitimate gripe. I am currently reading a scholarly book that cites an online magazine as its source for two primary documents and http://www.u-s-history.com for presidential election returns [1]. Like Feller, I wonder why the author didn’t take a weekend trip to an archive or make an interlibrary loan request in order to acquire the original sources. It’s a puzzling and worrisome trend, if these examples are indicative of where the profession is headed.

Caleb McDaniel, however, made the point yesterday that we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

I also think that the digitization and web publication of primary sources online is a boon to our profession, when done well. We should celebrate that key volumes like Richardson are widespread in libraries, but I think we should also celebrate and be actively involved (as professionals who can help with quality control) in the dissemination of such works online, especially for the sake of those historians and general readers who, for whatever reason, might not have access to them any other way and cannot take advantage of the wonders of university ILL services. With library budgets decreasing as they are, and money increasingly being funneled into outrageously expensive digital collections that exist behind paywalls and remain in the hands of for-profit corporations, I think we should be especially vigilant about trying to maintain open access to high-quality online sources. If we meet that challenge with a general opposition to anything on the Internet, I fear that we will miss some great opportunities to help expand access to primary sources and make our collective job as a profession easier and more interesting at the same time.

This conversation is ongoing, so I encourage you to subscribe to H-SHEAR or follow the discussion via its discussion logs.

Notes:

[1]. Here is the “About Us” description for http://www.u-s-history.com:

Travel and History has been made possible by Online Highways.

Online Highways, a leader in Internet travel information and reservations, is committed to the belief that an understanding of history enriches the travel experience.

Travel and History is a work in progress. Please check back later if you fail to find the topic of your interest.

We regret that we lack the time and resources to assist students individually with their papers, projects and assignments.

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One Reply to “Should Historians Utilize Online Sources?”

  1. We have been debating this over at the Joseph Smith Papers Project in Salt Lake City. We do very intensive genealogical work to identify the hundreds of people named in Smith’s papers. This is from Rachel Osborne, who supervises the source checking for biographical identifications:

    “We do cite a significant number of online databases or internet sources in our documentation for bio entries because there are some bits of local or family history that are not available to us in any other media. In those cases, we try to include as much information about the cite as possible so if the link should “rot” a researcher will have some clues that may help them find the needed info again. For instance, if someone has posted a cemetery transcription online, we’ll include the name and location of the cemetery, the transcription’s author, the sponsoring organization, etc. as documented on the website. I assume that researchers will also have our hard-copy bio research files available to them at some point; print outs of all internet cites are kept in the research files.”

    Citing internet sources is a particular concern to documentary editors because of our genre. The material posted on the H-SHEAR listserv has dealt mostly with articles in historical journals. Much more than the article, and even the major monograph, documentary editions are supposed to be built to last. We have already sold tens of thousands of JSP volumes and we will sale many tens of thousands more. Those volumes are going to be around for decades. But any citations to internet sources that they contain will be more and more likely to be inaccurate with every passing year.

    My recent proposal to the project is that we only cite an internet source if it is significantly better than instead citing one, two, or three print-published sources that could be put together to adequately document the same point.

    Mark Ashurst-McGee
    Smith Papers

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