Transcript of Block, “How to Do Historical Research Online”

Note: this transcription was done with Temi, a text-to audio transcription tool. As such, it may not be perfect, but should be perfectly usable.

Speaker 1 (00:00): Our guest historian is Sharon Block, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and a historian who relied mostly on digital historical sources to write her second and forthcoming book, colonial complexions, race and bodies in 18th century America. During our exploration, Sharon reveals how the digital age has changed and added to the ways historians research, how historians research history online and how we can best locate historical information using the internet. But before we dive deep into the online world of historical research, you should know that Sharon will mention a lot of different places where you can conduct historical research online. I’ve included links to all of these places on the show notes page. So you can just listen to and enjoy this episode without having to worry about missing a resource. Are you ready to explore how historians do history digitally? Let’s go meet our guest historian.

Speaker 1 (01:05):

Our guest joins us from California, where she is a professor of history at the university of California, Irvine. She’s the author of numerous articles and two books, rape and sexual power in early America and colonial complexions, race and bodies in 18th century America, which will be published in 2017. Her research interests include computational data, mining, digital humanities, and pursuing work that pushes the boundaries of historical practices, which is why she joins us as part of our doing history, how historians work series to discuss how historians research history online. Welcome to Ben Franklins world Sharon block. Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here today. We’re going to discuss the internet and how historians use it to research history. Sharon use the internet a lot to research her new and forthcoming book, colonial complexions, race and bodies in 18th century America, which offers a timely look at how Americans have thought about race and how those thoughts have changed over time. Sharon, would you tell us about your research? How did early American men and women think about race?

Speaker 2 (02:07):

We started with a pretty straightforward question. I guess I was struck by the fact that right in today’s society, it seems like you can’t go anywhere without someone taking a picture. And it occurred to me at 18th century is a period where racial ideas are really developing and solidifying. And we’ve talked a lot as historians about the idea of the body, right? The influence of the political body and the race body and the gendered body. And I wanted to really try to put a physicality to that and say, okay, what did colonial people see when they describe these raced bodies? What did they see when they described a woman or a man or a European person or an African person? And so what I did is try to find places where colonial people talked about descriptions of each other, but did not necessarily say this is what I think race is, or this is what I think gender is.

Speaker 2 (02:59):

So I found a source that most people who looked at American history or even read any American history textbook are familiar with, which are what people call runaway ads. People often see them for slaves who had escaped from their owners and the owners would publish an advertisement in the newspaper trying to say, this person has escaped. I own this person. This is what they look like. Please bring them back to me. I’ll give you overboard in the colonial period, these advertisements, or first slaves, servants, deserters, sometimes people who had escaped from jail. And so they provided a really nice big source to look at how people described other people in colonial America. And what I found is that, well, we tend to talk about white people and black people and use white and black as if they are obvious terms in the 18th century. These were not the terms that people use and that white and black is really a reflection of the 19th century scientific racism, color-based racism. And so what I’m interested in this book is thinking about the ways that common language, the things that people said and saw every day really called race and identity into being in this particular period,

Speaker 1 (04:03):

The way Sharon conducted research for colonial complexions differed from the way she conducted research for her first book, rape and sexual power in early America. Her first book required a lot of archival digging. Sharon visited more than 25 archives in historical societies to locate 912 incidents of possible sexual coercion in 20 British American colonies States and territories between 1,718 20 for colonial complexions sharing used over 4,000 runaway slave ads printed in eight colonies plus numerous letters, diaries and printed sources like broadsides. And almanacs almost all of these records and sources for the second book were digital Sharon you’ve experienced firsthand. How digitization has changed the way historians work. Would you tell us more about how the digital age has affected how you work and the ways it has opened up new avenues for historical research?

Speaker 2 (04:57):

I think the first thing I talk about is actually the real life structure and the real life impediments to different kinds of research. And I think sometimes we don’t think about that as much. When I went to those 25 archives, I was a grad student. I had very few responsibilities except for my research. At the time I didn’t have children, I didn’t have a mortgage. I wasn’t particularly responsible for anybody. I could go and drive my little car around to archives and sleep on people’s couches. And that was very doable. I think we need to be realistic that for people what’s going on in their life impacts the kind of research that may be possible, whether they have funding, what kind of a university they’re teaching at. I think this impacts women differentially, who are still responsible, largely for much of childcare. So part of the switch to digitization, I think can open an opportunity for people, maybe for financial family, other reasons.

Speaker 2 (05:52):

It is not as easy to go and visit 25 archives. I thought it was particularly privileged at that point to be able to do that. So for my second project, realistically, I live on the West coast. I can’t pop into a new England archive for an afternoon. And so I decided to try to do this project that was primarily digital and it raises all sorts of issues. One of the downsides of that I will say is that digital privilege is a particular kind of sources, which is print sources largely. And so it leads to a really different kind of a book I’m trying to decide if the time spent searching for rape cases, is that different from the time spent searching in digital archive? I think there’s a lot of searching involved. I think both involve a lot of creativity. So there’s a lot that connects the projects, but what I think more generally has changed and that people may not realize this with my first project, there was no internet, there was no keyword search.

Speaker 2 (06:45):

You had to learn the library of Congress, subheadings and headings to be able to search for your topic. And you were dependent on whatever the library of Congress decided was the closest subheading to what you were doing. I think we can’t emphasize enough how much the digital age has changed the possibilities for scholarship journal articles. Weren’t online every year. I’d go sit in the library and page through all of the journals that had come out that here. So it makes a difference. So I think not just in terms of finding sources, but finding communities and sharing information, I do feel that that’s one of the big differences in the kind of historical research we can do at the same time. Even for colonial America. We now have massive corpuses, massive collections of documents at our disposal. I’ve sometimes joked. We should do a history of the name, Mary let’s just see what everyone named Mary was doing in colonial America.

Speaker 2 (07:35):

We couldn’t do that in a lot of ways now, but I’m not sure that we should just because we can doesn’t mean it’s the best way to pursue history. So that’s something that I think can be seductive with digital history that we think, Oh, wow, there are all these sources online. I can just do a search and find everything. Finding a step one, doing history is about analyzing those sources and thinking about those sources and seeing how they relate to particular questions. You still need the interesting questions. You still need the ability to understand and contextualize sources. So I don’t want to say that everything has changed. There are a lot more opportunities for the ways we can do history. And I think there are new questions, technologies allow for new innovation and analysis, but you still need to be a historian under all of that. And think deeply, I think then would be the big thing that hasn’t changed.

Speaker 1 (08:23):

Your description of writing your dissertation is very different from my description because I had the internet, although I did visit a lot of archives and I spent some quality time sitting on the ground in the library stacks with all of the issues of the New York history journal around me, because that particular journal wasn’t digitized. And that was actually a real bummer.

Speaker 2 (08:43):

Yes, absolutely. And even though I really support the digital, one of the things that has been lost is the value of sitting in front of a library bookshelf, and just seeing what is next to a book of interest or what is in the effort, the E or the H’s that is of interest to you. I can’t count the number of times that that has been valuable and continues to this day. I was at the Huntington library last year and I realized all my searching in databases. It was much easier for me to look on a shelf and see how librarians had cataloged things and just be able to see all of this stuff next to each other. So still I love the digital, but I hope we aren’t getting rid of libraries and the physical materials that we want to use entirely

Speaker 1 (09:27):

Earlier. You mentioned digital privilege. Would you tell us what you mean by that? Does the fact that computers now categorize books and sources rather than humans constitute digital privilege?

Speaker 2 (09:37):

I think I wasn’t referring so much to search in terms of digital privilege as in terms of content of documents; whose words get digitized, whose words receive a wider audience? A good example of this is the National Archives has a great site, Founders Online, which contains the writings of most of the founding fathers. That’s wonderful, and that makes their writings much more accessible to a wide audience. Whereas the manuscript court records let’s say of enslaved people suing for freedom or civil cases where women want to be femme sols, want to be independent women running their own businesses. These local-level manuscript court cases are not being digitized in the same ways. And so I think it increases the gap between whose sources are available. It increases access to elite, generally white men sources in the colonial periods. And as funding shifts from local archives to digitization, it makes it harder for these local records of common people to be widely accessible in the same ways.

Speaker 1 (10:37):

Let’s talk about researching history online. When many of us think about researching history online, we think about Google web products, Google web search, Google books, and perhaps even Google images. And we often use these products by typing in search terms for the information we seek. Is this how historians conduct online research? I mean, do they really just sit there and perform keyword searches and Google?

Speaker 2 (10:58):

I do sometimes – many times – perform keyword searches in Google, but again, I think this is a skill. It’s about what you were searching and what you do with what you find. I had a bunch of students last term who used Google to search up a particular term that I had given them. And many of them were pointed to a wrong answer because one of the things about the Internet and especially U S history, it seems like every middle school student creates their own flashcards or Yahoo answers or whatever…wrong answers get replicated a lot. And so I think Google search, like any tool, is really useful. I think telling what is a reliable source and what isn’t is one of the first sort of digital techniques that people need to master having a skill in searching, knowing what the difference is, if it’s in Google books or it is Yahoo answers, right?

Speaker 2 (11:46):

Yahoo answers, maybe not quite that useful. I also want to point to here though, when I think the value of Google, you mentioned Google products. I think it’s not just about searching online; research is about what we can do. Not just what we can find. I think basic things like Google documents, let you collaborate in all kinds of ways that you couldn’t before finding people’s research is incredibly easy. Now I think programs like Zotero, which allow you to automatically save the citation for any webpage or journal article or document you are on and have it in your database. I think these kinds of things allow us to do better history, but we need to know how to use them. And I’m a big fan of making all of this explicit and clear and talking about the process and the choices we make.

Speaker 2 (12:36):

Because I think the research choices we make really influence the conclusions we come to. So is it all Google? No, but it’s really useful. I will say one of the things I find incredibly useful in Google is when I’m trying to track the use of a term. So if I’m trying to track say yellow complexion, it’s really useful to me to see what historians have written about that in Google books and be able to search for that term. It would take me weeks, at least to find all of the books that might have that and rely on people’s indexes. And the shift from relying on an index to keyword search is huge, right? I wonder about what we do with an index. Now, how useful is it? I mean, that’s sort of, again, the difference between human categorized and computer categorized. I don’t think computer categorized is necessarily superior, but it’s a really useful tool.

Speaker 2 (13:27):

My take on most things, digital is: digital technology is a tool. It is not a solution. At one point in grad school, I read a book and I so wished I’d kept track of it because it was some computer scientists writing in the 1960s saying that robots will come. And in the next 30 years they will eradicate poverty and hunger around the world. Right? And it was this sort of vision that technology would solve everything. I think I’d hope we’d gotten to the point that technology is not in and of itself a panacea that will make our world a better place. And I think that’s the same thing for historical research. It’s a tool. So it’s about our skill in using it as much as anything else

Speaker 1 (14:05):

Coming back to this theme of computer-organized versus human-organized. Would you tell us what the difference between the two is and why it matters?

Speaker 2 (14:13):

It’s a tough thing because computers did not make Google, people made Google, right? Google search and have been some instances lately people may have seen in the news where a Google search of returns answers that are based on what people believe, right? They may, miscategorize what photographs are. There’ve been a whole lot of issues where I think lots of search services, maybe just use white faces when they’re trying to have software that categorizes people, that’s a problem. Just the other day, I started to type a search into Google and it does auto-complete and the two first words were, “did black.” I was looking up something about black lives matter, but before I could, the autocomplete, the most popular search was, did black people own slaves. And that’s really interesting to me, right? That that is the most popular search. What does that say about us?

Speaker 2 (15:02):

So again, that doesn’t really answer your question. I guess I just consider the difference between human and computer. What I will say though, traditionally, we relied on people to decide what the content of a work was to decide what Library of Congress catalog heading, got to decide what the index terms were to talk about what was in there. I think technology, especially things like topic modeling, which I’ve done, some of give us a chance to see differently what the content is of a group of documents or sources. It gives us a chance to say, this is the theme, not the individual words, right? And so it really, I think opens up possibilities again, dependent on humans. But I think it allows for different perspectives and may take off some of the blinders to how we have traditionally catalogs and people who used the library of Congress subheadings. They have their own history, right? There was a time when I think the only subheading for African American history was Negro, right? This is not a surprise. This is how people conceptualized history, but things change over time. And sometimes it can take a while for catalogers to catch up, which is not to say I blame them in any way. I think trying to come up with a global picture is a really different thing from typing in a key search.

Speaker 1 (16:20):

You mentioned that online research is about what you can do, not just what you can find. And I do want to talk more about what we can do, but I’d like for us to stick with what we can find for a bit longer, you mentioned that keyword searches were problematic, that they were a skill. What can we do to maximize our ability to find the information we really want to find with a keyword search?

Speaker 2 (16:40):

I think it depends what you are looking for. So sometimes I will search say for an exact phrase and I’ll search it in Google search just general. I might search it in scholar. I might search it in Google books, knowing how search works. And again, part of the problem is that every database has its own rules about search. If you type in the word woman, will it just return woman, will it be fuzzy search that returns woman as well, will it do singular and plural searches? What words are considered stop words that are taken out of the search, right? If you search for the many databases will find nothing because there are so many does in documents that it would just make it incredibly clunky to have to search for every word. The, if you’ve ever tried to search on Google, you’ll see something. If you type Google, it will not search for Google.

Speaker 2 (17:28):

It will give you a window to Google. So understanding almost every database you use will have instructions. Does it use bullying, search and not, or, or what are the terms of the search? What pen and can’t you search? So I really recommend becoming as familiar as possible with the database that you were searching in, whether it is Google keyword searches, right? People may not know that you can search for particular types of documents. If you go into Google books, there is a search tool bar where you can search limited dates in Google images, you can search the size or type of image, knowing what the search tools are that it is not just typing into a search box. I want to find this really can help you do more sophisticated search. And then the flip side is understanding your results. When I’m looking up something factual, I go to Wikipedia and the results.

Speaker 2 (18:15):

I know some of my colleagues are not fans of Wikipedia, but I think it’s some of the best information out there on basic factual topics. It doesn’t mean I don’t agree with it. It doesn’t mean I’m not bothered by the extent to which women and people of color are excluded from it. But if I’m trying to find out who this planter is that I’ve come across in a document, I will go to the Wikipedia answer, not to someone’s local history website. And so understanding the value of different websites. I think this is comparable to understanding publications. If you’re doing research, you need to think about what does it mean if something is published in this journal versus this journal? What does that tell me about the focus of the article or the rigor of the article? All of these things are about being aware. And I think we have to do it, whether it’s digital or not digital makes finding things so much easier that it can be difficult to remember.

Speaker 2 (19:06):

If we have to really be thinking about what we trust, this is even true. I will say in pay databases where you do keyword search, you’re looking at 18th century newspapers, and you’re looking for a particular word. Well, we need to keep in mind that optical character recognition OCR on many of these databases is really far from perfect. We’d call it dirty. I think database providers may not like me saying that, but these are 18th century documents. It is not always easy for a computer to read the text. And so while we might think the results that we found are accurate, a lot of the times you have to see they are missing. They’re not the right word, they’ve missed other words. And so I guess my emphasis is technology and the digital doesn’t mean we can stop thinking it doesn’t replace human thought and it doesn’t replace historical expertise. It gives us a chance to apply the new.

Speaker 1 (19:56):

You brought up other databases and many historians use big databases like early American newspapers or early American imprints. When they research history, would you tell us about these and other databases that historians use to conduct their research?

Speaker 2 (20:10):

Such a proliferation of databases, Redex, which produces our type of Americana, which is American historical newspapers and what used to be Evans and sharps Shoemaker, which is early American imprints, as well as other things. That’s one of the biggest ones. It’s also one of the most expensive they work with the American antiquarian society. That’s certainly one. I think there are a lot of local archives that have gotten funding to digitize their collections. And I’m a big fan of talking to your local archivist or searching your local archives. Certainly the federal archives have produced enormous amounts of collections. One of my favorites, I’ll just say off the beaten track is the st. Louis circuit court historical records project. They’ve got a really nice database. They’ve put on over 9,000 images from about 300 freedom suits involving African Americans and native Americans. They are wonderful documents. One of the things I like is that they have the original manuscript court records of people often suing for their freedom saying I’m wrongly enslaved, and they have transcripts of them, which makes them very usable.

Speaker 2 (21:13):

I use them a bunch in classrooms. I mentioned founders online. If you’re interested in the founding fathers, that’s put out by the national archives. Martha Ballard’s diary was one of the first digital sort of resources put out there. It must have been 10, 15 years ago. I think it’s still great. Today. Martha Ballard was a midwife. Laurel Alrick, a historian at Harvard made her famous by writing a book about this amazing diary. She kept as a midwife and Weaver in late 18th, early 19th century Maine, and made this companion online resource, which has actual pages of her diary, transcriptions information. You can search the diary and see how many times she mentions Washington. I think it was over 900, which depressed me something people don’t think about. People know J store as a collection of journalists, Nicole’s across fields and it’s behind the paywall, which can be unfortunate for people who don’t have access.

Speaker 2 (22:08):

But something people may not realize is a lot of their early 20th century journals are free and accessible to anyone. And a lot of those were antiquarian publications of colonial diaries and letters in journals. Be a great way to get at a whole lot of sources. It’s really useful. I find it in classes and for students. And again, those are fully text searchable. So that’s a really nice thing to have diaries that are searchable. There’s also some paid versions. Alexander street press does a women’s diaries collection that goes back to the colonial period. I think they also maybe do a native American and a colonial keep in mind. A lot of these collections are curated. And so it’s really important to think about who did this curation, what is in here? What is not in here? That’s really important with Google books as well to think about is the universe of which I am drawing my information and conclusions, a couple things that I’ve used in my book, runaway ads for slaves and servants are really great things.

Speaker 2 (23:07):

They’ve been used a lot because they have so much wonderful information. The Virginia geography of slavery is a great collection of mostly Virginia slave and servant and some Maryland ones as well. A class at Wesleyan made a really nice online collection called runaway Connecticut. It’s Connecticut advertisements for servants, apprentices slaves who ran away in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I think there’s no shortage of information out there. Some of it is behind paywalls and some of it is very localized. I really recommend talking to librarians on this subject. A lot of universities have parts of their manuscript collections digitized. So depending on what you’re interested in, there may be lots of options. Again, I just caution. We’d be really clear about what is digitized is not the universe we could be looking at and being clear about the parameters of what is and is not digitized.

Speaker 1 (24:00):

It’s really astounding how many databases there are with information about the past in them. And I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, right? Because the Internet’s been around for a while, but where do we find all of these databases are librarians our best resource when we’re trying to find digital information about people, places and events of the past, or is there a centralized digital directory that contains a listing of all the paid and free databases that are available,

Speaker 2 (24:25):

It would be Google search would be your best bet on that. I don’t think that there is a single list of databases. And part of this is how we even defining a database databases imply that it is searchable. There are many that are not searchable, but that are documents online. There are individuals who put documents online or who collect documents. And so I do think as a general rule, librarians and archivists are the experts and we should listen to them and pay attention to them and be kind to them as much as possible because they make what we do possible. I know many universities, including my own have librarians who will make lists of popular resources. So you could even go to, even if you’re not dumped, belong to that university libraries will often have research guides for particular subjects. Again, I think depending on the project, if it’s a local history project, if it’s a genealogy search, there are certainly commercial websites.

Speaker 2 (25:21):

There’s also the LDS church has family But even as I hear myself talking, the problem is there is no single list. I will say I’ve seen online a list that is an amalgamation of all the historical newspapers published online that are free, not behind paywalls from what I’ve seen. It’s mostly 19th and 20th century. So still library catalogs are still really useful. A lot more of them are online. I think we focus on the digitization of documents, but the fact that library catalogs for almost any library in the world are searchable online is also in and of itself a huge thing. I’m still a fan of, if you find the kind of document you’re looking for, look at what we call the metadata, all the information about it, go to the library of Congress, subheadings, see what subheading it is. Click on that subheading to find other documents with similar categorizations.

Speaker 2 (26:14):

I have my graduate students learn the library of Congress, subheadings for their project and learn how to use them. They are not the only way to search, but they are really useful way of combining knowledge with human expertise to see ways to search beyond the keyword. Cause one of the problems with the keyword is when I search for car, let’s say as a word, obviously not for colonial searches, but if I searched for the word car, Google will not give me all the occurrences of automobile or Porsche or Corvette or Volvo. Right? And so one of the things about keyword is we need to think about what exactly are the words we’re using and how we might broaden that in ways that are more useful to get a bigger sense of our projects. So again, that’s about human expertise.

Speaker 1 (27:00):

As you were describing some of the information that you found in various databases, I was trying to picture what a digital source looks like in my experience. They’re often text-based books, letters, newspapers, our all digital sources text-based or are there non-tech sources too.

Speaker 2 (27:16):

So that’s a really great question. Certainly it includes images and documents for the colonial period, less for the colonial. But one of the interesting shifts is that for more modern research, people talk about archives that are born digital. One of the great examples of this, how do we trace social movements that happen online? How do we create those archives? So I think the digital is forcing us to think about what is an archive. I would also say we tend to draw a strict divisions between primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are created at the time. Secondary sources are later. People, often historians commenting on those sources, but we have wonderful things that give us a new way to visualize using primary sources. And I guess that is a secondary source, but I’d like to have a new category for it. I’ll give you an example.

Speaker 2 (28:05):

Claudio sont has a wonderful digital visual that visually traces the switch of native American land into U S hands over the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. It’s wonderful. Right? And it is based on primary sources, right? It is not him making an analysis, but it is giving us a way to differently visualize those sources. Other people have done mapping of runaway ads, right? Where do people go? There’ve been editors and people have done a lot with the civil war of being able to map shifts in people and property in the civil war. And so these aren’t primary documents per se, but I do think visualization is something really exciting that can give us a new way to think about the documents that we do have

Speaker 1 (28:52):

Earlier. You mentioned paywalls that some of the history databases are behind paywalls. Would you tell us why that is? I mean, doesn’t the internet make information free for everyone?

Speaker 2 (29:03):

Oh, that would be nice. Paywalls are a tough thing. They are a really tough thing because on the one hand that’s sad and that again, privileges people who have access in particular ways and reinscribe those differences, right? I am at a university of California, all the UCS get together and purchase a lot of digital access. People at smaller institutions or who use their local libraries often don’t have that access. So I see real issues with that. On the other hand, digitization is not cheap and people sometimes think, well, you’ve digitized everything you’re done. Why do you need to keep being paid? Creating systems that work takes time and money. One of the concerns that libraries and archivists have is what happens when no one is watching over a digital archive. What happens when the person who did this archive maybe retires and nobody’s keeping it up to date?

Speaker 2 (29:56):

What happens when the software that the person put in the background to run the search for the archive no longer works. There are real questions about this, about how we maintain databases. And I do think that that takes time and energy. I mean, I just spent the last few days, Redex has come out with a new interface for lots of its databases and they might not like me saying this, but it’s really problematic. And buggy, I exchanged no exaggeration about 60 emails related to these problems. We have hundreds of thousands of documents and we expect that we can search anything. And I think Google has spoiled us. Many Google things are free, but that’s because they are a business that makes a lot of money. In other ways, not for profits who are trying to publish this stuff and local archives, they are relying say on NEH grants to do this.

Speaker 2 (30:44):

And it doesn’t end with the digitization. There is an ongoing cost. So I’m a little sympathetic to the idea that there may be a cost I will. On the other hand say, I do feel that if there is a cost, they have a responsibility to users that the system works, works well and is as accurate as possible. So yeah, the paywall thing is really tough, but I guess I’d emphasize that we may just see the documents, but there’s a team of programmers and coders and designers who are doing the work to make our experience as seamless as people,

Speaker 1 (31:16):

Sharon, all your talk of the wonderful digital holdings of the university of California library system is making me nostalgic and a bit sad that I don’t have privileges anymore. And I’m not the only one Jenny Vivian would like to know if you have any tips or tricks for those of us who want to conduct historical research online, but don’t have access to big and important databases because we don’t belong to a big university or major public library.

Speaker 2 (31:41):

Absolutely. I don’t have a cure all, but I have some ideas. One is, I mean, this sounds silly, but make friends there plenty of times, a friend on social media has said, shoot, I need access to this journal. My institution doesn’t have it. Can someone send it to me? I just last week sent a couple copies of a 1750s newspaper to a genealogist who had reached out to me after reading my book because she said, I’d love to see these newspapers. Is there any way you can send them? It takes me five minutes to be able to do that. And I think historians also, right? This is part of what we do. So making friends is not a bad idea. Some databases will offer individual subscriptions accessible archives, which I mentioned, which has Pennsylvania because Virginia does it. South Carolina does it in the colonial period.

Speaker 2 (32:28):

As well as some early 19th century, African-American published newspapers for $65 a year. You can have access to their whole collection. $65 is not nothing, but if you’re doing a project with these newspapers that may be worth it, it would probably cost you more in gas to make multiple trips to a big research library near you. So checking into that can be something worth doing. If you’re already a university, ask your librarian to see about a trial subscription. A lot of databases will give you a 30 day trial subscription in the hopes that you’ll get addicted to their resource and beg your librarian to buy it. Often you can say, look, could you get this trial resource in July when I’ll have lots of time to do it? And then you spend the month cranking through as much as you can in that digital resource, who knows, maybe you’ll decide it’s the most useful thing ever in your library we’ll buy it.

Speaker 2 (33:20):

But even if they don’t, you will have had a month to use it, which can be really useful. There’s a lot out there more and more that isn’t behind paywalls. I dunno if people have noticed, but I think the NEH just announced its newspaper digitization project. Originally. I think it started in 1830, which made me very sad. I don’t know why nobody likes the colonial period we do, but they just pushed the newspaper digitization funds back to the 18th, maybe even the 17th century. So the colonial period, right? So this means that local archives and other holders can digitize their documents. So I think it may take a little more work like Google for a while, had a newspaper historic digitization project. They closed it after a few years. And that’s one of the problems with things that are free. There is no obligation or necessarily funding to keep it up.

Speaker 2 (34:09):

Google newspaper archive was not great. I will say, I think there was one newspaper that had metadata saying it was 1776 and I was looking through it and there was an advertisement for a plumber in Boca Raton. And I thought, yeah, I don’t think that’s 1776. So again, the quality assurance differs in terms of who is doing the work and whether it is for pay, if it is for pay, there is an obligation to produce a product. I think that does not say plumbers in Boca Raton were running around during the revolution. So thinking about that, talk to local, archivists and librarians, they may be able to figure out ways to get you access to things more than you think. That’s my hopefully helpful tip.

Speaker 1 (34:49):

One thing that keeps coming up about how historians research online is that we need to be aware of our sources. We need to pay attention to how we’re employing keyword searches, what our search results are and what information or people may be missing from those results. With all of this in mind, do historians have a set of best practices when it comes to conducting their research online? I mean, are there standard methods historians use when they search for a particular records and then evaluate those records?

Speaker 2 (35:16):

Not that I know of, I wish that there were some standards and I think it’s certainly a skill that is becoming more important. I think again, librarians and archivists have taken the lead in this, but part of the problem is that it depends what you’re looking for. Are you looking for every secondary source book written on a particular topic? You know, sometimes I will find a phrase and a, and I will want to see what does this phrase mean? How often is this phrase used? How is it used? That’s a really different kind of search. So I don’t think there are standards. And this is where I think digitization does not mean automatically useful results. Just like when I would go through hundreds of court records to find cases that related to sexual violence, there was as much an art to that. It wasn’t, Oh, it says rape.

Speaker 2 (36:02):

Therefore it’s rape. There were many cases that were not as obvious as that in the records and developing that ability to understand what the possibilities are, what things can mean, what different things can mean is something that takes skill and practice. I would like to see certainly guidelines and help would be useful. But I also think this is what it means to be a historian. It used to be finding what was in archives paging by hand through document. Now it may be finding what is on the internet. Having said that there is some basic things that I’ve talked about. Look at what the sources for your document. If it, it may be more useful or you may offer it a little bit more trust than you might something that not necessarily, but it’s a tip. Very often people do all these great projects where their students put information online.

Speaker 2 (36:55):

These can be useful. But one of my concerns is that you need to recognize, you may be reading an undergraduate paper. And so you need to not take that as necessarily the same thing as a piece of finished scholarly research. On the other hand, there are historical blogs out there that are phenomenal historian or the African American intellectual history society blog. These are fantastic blogs with information that I would take seriously as absolutely serious research, but it takes some time to figure these things out. I have not seen anything that sort of, you know, gives you a little green light, that this is a quote unquote real source. I don’t know that I’d like that because I’d worry then about who sources get prioritized as legitimate and whose don’t, whose writings count in the scholarly apparatus. And who’s don’t, I would always err on inclusion over exclusion. And that includes in the digital,

Speaker 1 (37:49):

Near the start of our conversation. You mentioned how online research is about what we can do, not just what we can find. And we’ve spent most of our conversation talking about what we can find. So let’s now turn to what we can do with online research. Our digital age has altered the way some historians like yourself work. Would you tell us the other ways that computers have facilitated your research? Perhaps you could tell us how it facilitated your research and writing of colonial complexions.

Speaker 2 (38:15):

One of the big things is that I think we can aggregate data more easily, right? So that I can go and find all of the examples of the yellow complexity in a particular newspaper run. When I did my first book, when I was looking for rapes that were publicized in newspapers, I was sitting there with microfilm or sometimes micro card. If any of your readers remember that? Not fondly, I’m sure I was sitting they’re skimming frame by frame, moving my eyes up and down. I’m trying to look for ravish rape, any word that caught my eye at the end of my project, I was almost a little bit sad when the first digitized collection of the Pennsylvania, cause that came out where I could just type the word rape Ravis and find all of that, that I had sweat to find before. But what it means is that instead of saying, okay, I look through 10 years of newspapers, this is what I found.

Speaker 2 (39:05):

I can look through a hundred years of newspapers or we can look through 10 years of 10 newspapers. Okay. And so I think for me, especially in colonial complexions, this allows me to make arguments based on snippets of information piled up together. And that is something that I think is newer, that I can take instead of saying, Oh, this one person was described in this way. I can say, look, look at what percent of all of them, these people were described in this way. Quantification comes in here a bit. And I know historians are not generally known for their love of math and numbers, but I certainly in both my projects, I’m interested in doing social and cultural histories that have an, the undergirding of quantification, but that the text text itself, there is still a narrative I’m still telling a history. So I like to think of the ways that we can use digital records to point us, to conclusions, to analyze again, the human factor.

Speaker 2 (40:00):

On the other hand, before colonial complexions, I was doing a lot of work with topic modeling, which is in some ways an alternative to keyword search that really computed use statistics to figure out what words tend to co-occur appear together. So it helps you find subjects rather than keywords. And that can really show us things. We wouldn’t necessarily think in one of my projects, I looked at half a million abstracts for historical articles and found that less than 10% of those articles focused on women that usually surprises people. This was from 1995 to 2005. So pretty recent. And it was at a time when people were saying, Oh my goodness, women’s history is overtaking the profession everything’s women’s history. And the reality was that it wasn’t right. And so being able to look at half a million documents and make a conclusion about them is not something that a human could easily do.

Speaker 2 (40:54):

Certainly not in one life it’s time. And so I think asking these kinds of different questions, the big questions that can provide evidence, I think the flip side is it kind of, I think should encourage this, starting to think about what counts it says, evidence. If we find one example of something, is that indicative or an outlier, all of us probably who have done research, we had been in a situation where you find a great case or a great example or something wonderful. When you look back on your research, you say, yes, that is the theme. But if you look more carefully, very often, that is a really cool exception, not the theme. We tend to remember what out, not as what the background and I think digitization puts some responsibility on us to think broadly about what is the background, what is going on all the time, not just the interesting spikes, some of the time

Speaker 1 (41:46):

Let’s move into the Timewarp. Normally this is the fun segment of the show, where we ask you a hypothetical history question about what might’ve happened. If something had occurred differently, or if someone had acted differently, however, I’ve pulled our time machine out of the garage and we’re going to allow you to use it, to visit the future.

Speaker 3 (42:08):

The time war historians can’t predict the future, but they can speculate about what might have been

Speaker 1 (42:19):

In your opinion. What will the future of historical research look like? How will the internet digital databases and software facilitate and change how historians research the past?

Speaker 2 (42:30):

That’s a big question. I think I will go with my hopes rather than my fears on this one. I am not a huge fan of the book and there are all sorts of debates in some of my best friends, love the book. I like more interactive, less linear kinds of history. And my hope would be that we would move in this direction. So if we have a book rather than it being a passive document that we receive, I’d love historical research to be more interactive. So that a piece of research might allow people to engage on multiple levels. Maybe some people would want to click through to the historical sources or see how the historian interpreted the sources, or I think it would be wonderful to see the process of putting together historical work. What questions did the author have at what point did the author say, Oh, I’m not sure about this.

Speaker 2 (43:16):

Yes, I am sure about this. Ken books also be tied to classroom uses I’d love books that we could say, okay, let’s pull out this chapter and have five different ways to use it in the classroom. Or here are ways that it can be used for genealogical research. Even more importantly, I think here are ways that this ties to modern issues. I find myself certainly researching race all the time, looking at stories and thinking, wow, that really relates to what I’m doing in colonial America. And I think people relate to being able to see their own society and compare their own society. And that’s a really useful thing to look at history as a conversation in the present at the same time. I think the big picture is people being able to follow their own interests and be part of creating historical stories rather than being passive receivers. So in that sense, I see history much more broadly, perhaps not just speaking to an academic audience and thinking about how it’s not just digitization, that has the potential to democratize. It is the way we do history that we can contribute to that democratization and contribute to the many different ways that we can engage in history. And that what we call historical research.

Speaker 1 (44:23):

Sharon, you finished your second book and you’re doing a lot of interesting work online. So what’s next for you?