The rapid development of digital storage capabilities and the opportunities for interconnectedness have created new resources (and responsibilities) for students and researchers of History. Not only are new sources of data, graphics, and ideas now easily available, the wealth and varied formats of the information calls for new research techniques and goals.
This brief guide is intended as an introduction to using the Internet as a resource for the study of History. Written for students, it should also prove useful to anyone interested in gaining greater proficiency in this arena. The Internet grows at such a rapid rate that no printed document can hope to be complete. This booklet begins with instructions on how to utilize the Internet to find resources and ends with a brief catalog of some of the very best that is out there. Intermixed are a few proficiency exercises designed to develop and test proficiency in using the Internet, as well as spark inquiry and contemplation of the benefits and problems of the Internet resources.
One of the most exciting things about the Internet for students of History is an increasing accessibility to material previously available only to specialists or by travel to major libraries. While the amount of material is limited, this is certainly a case where “some” is better than “none.” The charge has been made that the Internet brings more to the elite, who can afford computer equipment, and further isolates those without similar financial resources. In the United States, where almost every college, university and library in the United States has access to the Internet, the charge is largely unfounded. Other countries, especially in Europe, are reaching similar levels of accessibility. At the time of writing, there were only a few countries in Africa that did not have some sort of Internet access. The next quest needs to be one not for access, but for content.
The Internet has seemingly become omnipresent, and is regularly used in some way by both the public and private sectors. Universities and colleges (and university and college students) have consistently been among the heaviest users, and part of this legacy has been an increasing focus on using the Internet to make educational and research materials more easily and widely available. The Internet has become an invaluable tool for historians, and anyone not taking advantage of it is unnecessarily limiting him or herself. On the other hand, the Internet has also become a vast, confusing landscape where finding and evaluating information can be a time consuming and frustrating task. This guide to internet resource for Historians is designed to help the user by indicating some important places to start, techniques for searching, and methods of evaluating what is on the Internet.
This guide assumes that you have a basic understanding of how to use a computer and the Internet, especially e-mail and the World Wide Web. What platform you use—Mac, Windows or other, matters not, nor does it matter what Internet browser you use. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator are recommended. Do be sure to have a recent version to ensure that you are taking full advantage of web sites and seeing what the creators intended you to see. If you are unsure of the basics of how to use the Internet, go to your school or public library—there are almost certainly people there willing to help you, and very likely they offer short courses that will help to bring you up to speed.
Where did the Internet Come from?
Since this is guide for historians, we really can not go farther without relating briefly the history of the Internet. The amorphous Internet was born, ironically, out of Cold War paranoia. In the 1960’s the U.S. Department of Defense began research into the creation of a computerized network to enhance military communication and defense-related research. In 1982, under the guidance of the National Science Foundation, this rudimentary network expanded its scope by becoming the Computerized Science Network. It became fully functional in 1983 when all U.S. military sites were linked on this network.
In 1988, the National Science Foundation, seeing the potential o interconnected computer systems as an enhanced means of communicating and sharing data, helped create a new high-speed area network open to all educational and research facilities (in the U.S. and world-wide) and to government employees. This “democratized” network marked the real birth of the Internet. Once in the hands of academics—and graduate students—explosive growth occurred. These pioneers spent no small amount of energy getting the Net to do things it was not originally designed to do. Clever individuals who wanted to play Star Trek (or discuss the relative merits of starship captains) with unseen friends thousands of miles away pushed the technology to a new point of usefulness. Sometimes in developing technology, play comes before work.
In 1999 it was estimated that over 40% of adults, some 83 million individuals, in the United States had Internet access, and spent an average of 12.1 hours on-line per week. All indications are that this number will continue to rise.
What the Internet is (and Isn’t)
Internet users are often frustrated by problems. A basic understanding of how the Internet works may not allow you to fix those problems, but might help you know when it is, or is not, your fault. Let us remember, of course, to put these problems in context. Users become frustrated because usually the Internet works so well. There is a certain ludicrousness to how quickly we become frustrated when we can not see pictures from the other side of the planet right when we want to—all for free.
The Internet has often been referred to as the “information superhighway.” This popularized phrase is a misnomer; the Internet is, at its name implies, an intricate network. Unlike a superhighway, there are a seemingly infinite number of pathways, and multiple roots to the same destination. The user who attempts to simulate the superhighway and rush directly to his destination will miss much of the joy, and ultimately the value of the trip, and will never find the destination anyway.
The Internet is not, however, a perpetual font of goodness and knowledge. The “noise-to-signal” ratio is extremely high. Matching every item of value are many more items of little or no value. In this way, the Internet is very much like television. Occasionally there are shows of substantial content and value, often there are shows that are moderately entertaining and contain the occasional pearl, but mostly there is material of no value. The great difference, however, is that no one owns the Internet. It is much easier to change the channel, and if we do not like what is there, we can make our own.
There is no central administration or computer for the Internet. The Internet is a system built largely by consensus, with little hierarchy, and no authority. But the Internet is not anarchy. Content is, of course, uncontrolled, but the only way the computers can communicate is by agreeing on common communication protocols. These protocols are not enforced. You can, for example, put your web page in any format you want—but if it is not recognized by others, no one can read it. Protocols are administered by voluntary consortium. Among the most important are The Internet Society (www.isoc.org) which acts as an organizational home for a variety of groups, and the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org) which develops common protocols. It is cooperative agreement on communication protocols (like the World-Wide Web or e-mail), and naming conventions that allow the Internet to work.
The Internet is a collection of cooperatively linked computer networks. As a student, you may be using an account on a University network, or perhaps have contracted for service from a local Internet provider. In either case, when you dial-in or sit in a room with networked computers, this provider allows you entrance into the network. For the average user, the local provider is the most important. It is very likely that the intermediate networking steps taken to reach your Internet destination will be completely unknown. To the user it looks like once you logon, you connect directly to the computer you wish to access.
In most cases, however, the connection is much more complicated, as your computer accesses data through your Internet provider, and your Internet provider accesses data from one of their providers, and so on.
Another common term used to describe the world of the Internet is “cyberspace.” “Cyberspace” was coined by William Gibson in his 1984 science fiction novel Neuromancer. In Gibson’s creation, cyberspace was a semi-autonomous matrix of computers. Gibson’s gritty, not-too-distant future of high technology and low culture is an important part of the recent literature, but not (as of yet) a realistic portrait of the Internet. Despite popular depictions the Internet is not all powerful, and the information one can find is, in fact, quite limited.
One of the most common misperceptions is that almost all information is available via the Internet, including personal information. This simply is not true. For something to be available someone has to have made the choice to dedicate a computer and put the information on-line—usually with no financial incentive to do so. So while you might be able to find someone’s address, as many phone books are on-line, you cannot find someone’s employment record or life history—unless they (or someone who knows them) has made a conscious decision to make the information available. Think of the implications of this for historical research. Information about “Pet Care during the Civil War,” or whatever topic you might be interested in is quite unlikely to be sitting on a computer somewhere waiting for you to access it. Who would have gone to the trouble of doing this? For the historian, the Internet is a very useful information tool, but not yet a substitute for the library.
Just as you do not need to know how the computerized fuel injection of your car works to drive, you do not need to know how the Internet works to use it. One bit of invaluable knowledge, however, is how Internet addresses work. Being able to understand, guess and manipulate these addresses will make you work much more efficiently. E-mail addresses and Web addresses, or URLs (Universal Resource Locators) work the same way and are easily dissected.
Protocol indicates the type of connection being made with the computer. Standard types include http (hypertext transfer protocol—how the WWW works), gopher, and ftp (file transfer protocol). The most recent software, including Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer, automatically detect the type of connection, and users can regularly omit this information.
The Server is the computer upon which the data is stored. Very often the computer is name WWW, and in such cases this part of the address can also be omitted as browser software will guess this. Note that the server name is not always “WWW,” however.
The Domain is the registered name of the organization or individual hosting the web site. It is this name that your service provider searches for when you request a connection.
.com –commercial site
Domain types can sometimes indicate a non-U.S. web site, although usage is inconsistent. www.bob.fr would indicate, for example, a site in France.
Directory indicates what folder on the host machine the web data resides in.
File Name is the file being retrieved. When no file is listed, most servers and browsers will automatically display either index.html or default.html
E-mail addresses use the same principle. Bob@bob.com simply indicates the user name “Bob” at the domain named “bob”, which is operated by a commercial entity.
Sometimes you will find yourself at a site with a rather odd URL like “http://search
.yahoo.com/bin/search?p=worst&y=n&e=76539&f=0%3A2766678%3A2718086%3A74294%3A75192%3A76539&r=Computers+and+Internet%02Interne%02World+Wide+Web.” This usually happens went you have conducted a search or requested something specific. This is coding that allows the computer delivering the data to search itself and find what it is looking for. These URLs are temporary things, and should not be cited or kept.