Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Researching - a Gross guide to Primary Sources

Gathering accurate information requires tenacity. To decipher crazy 300-year-old writings, you must first find them.

The now old joke "if it's on the internet it must be true" rings ironically cautionary for historical researchers. Pretty much everything I've ever found on the internet about the pirates I'm researching has proven false.

The only way to get at the fascinating truth is with Primary Sources. Transcriptions are not only rare to find, but they're fallible - made by humans or by OCR scanning. For accuracy, the original pages are what you need to lay your eyes upon. Even the original pages will have contemporary errors and false information, but for now, concentrate on getting your hands on those primary sources. Investigating their content comes later.

There are many places to find primary sources, & I've learned about all of them the hard way (see my first June 2009 blog). To save you the heartache, danger and expense, here is a simple "how to" formula:
  1. Free online searches, which lead to...
  2. Free online sources (digitized originals)
  3. Fee-based online sources (digitized originals)
  4. Online library searches, which lead to...
  5. Visit local libraries (publications & multimedia)
  6. Visit regional/university libraries (digitized collections)
  7. Visit regional historical societies (original documents)
  8. Visit national archives (original documents)
Online Resources:

Search engines - NOT a Primary Resource:
Sure, you can search google, but 99% of what you find will be bogus hearsay. If you get lucky, your results might link to a source image, or maybe the Project Gutenberg (sloppy transcripts by volunteers). There are very few primary sources available in a google search. Wikipedia is NOT a Primary Source. is a great place to seek out the origin of words, including the year it first appeared in the English language, but it is NOT a primary source. Encyclopedias are NOT Primary Sources.

Forums are a better resource than you might think. Often in the forums you'll find an expert or two in the field who posts corrections to the misinformation. When possible, directly contact the so-called experts to see if they can help you verify the information & lead you to the primary source.

Primary Sources Online:

Google Books (free!) is the best place for every book ever published from the 17th century to today. Books written ABOUT your subject are not primary, though their citations and bibliographies will point you in the right direction. Older uncopyrighted books are available for full preview, totally searchable. Newer copyrighted books are often available in partial preview, where you can search the text & preview a lot of pages.

With every book listing, there is a list of links to find the actual book. One link is almost always to Amazon, and another link is usually to WorldCat...

WorldCat (free!) is the global catalog via which all libraries network. I say "all" loosely. Certain important organizations such as your local historical society or the American Antiquarian Society do not show up in any results, which is disappointing. However, your local library & most other libraries throughout the world are linked when you search for phrases or book titles. It's a very cool resource that keeps you from having to search separate library catalogs.

Depending on what you're researching, the possibilities are endless. For my purposes, there are special places I can go to such as British History Online. It's free for much of the content, and about $60 per year for unlimited access to everything they have. The transcriptions are impeccable, and citations make all of it verifiable. I've met the people who do the transcriptions (Institute of Historical Research @ University of London), and they're very dedicated to the work.

The National Archives catalogue has digitized a large number of documents relating to both British and Colonial history. For a per-item fee you can get pages to many historical documents without flying to England.

Another resource worth mentioning, especially for genealogists, is S&N Genealogy Supplies. The reasonably priced data CDs provide text-searchable digitized registers, maps, etc. from the UK dating back to the 1500s - when King Henry VIII was alive!

The Mormons have been meticulously collecting global genealogical information which you can search free online at Family Search.

Exclusive Resources:

Digitized Collections:
The coolest primary resources are digitized collections. The documents don't quite come to you, though. You have to meet them half way. If you're remote from a major city, you'll need to travel. Many colleges & universities, plus some big city libraries, subscribe to the collections. I'm in Orlando, but I have to travel about 2 hours to gain access in Tampa, Gainesville or Boca Raton because the local colleges don't have the funding to subscribe to these pricy collections.

The New York Library lists most of the collections invaluable to an historical researcher. My personal favorites for digitized original documents:
Original Documents:
At some point, you may have to travel all the way to an archive housing the original documents you seek. It's a thrilling experience to touch, see and smell the pages handwritten by people like George Washington, Patrick Henry, Henry Morgan, the Duke of Marlborough, Robert Walpole, etc.

To save you the pain of learning the hard way how to do on-site historical research, I beg you to buy a plane ticket and travel to the middle of Massachusetts to visit the American Antiquarian Society. In your first 30 minutes, you'll learn more about the process than you'll ever discover at another archive. And you'll most certainly find a lot of the documents you need there, be it American, Colonial, British or genealogical.

Once you've learned how to navigate your way through an archive, you can visit other archives and historical societies relevant to your research, from the massive National Archives in Washington to your local historical society in the basement of an old house.

Before you go:
Comb your hair. Many archives will take your picture and hand you a badge. They may even fingerprint you and grill you about your research credentials. This usually happens at Ivy League school libraries. You might need to carry a letter from your publishers, course instructor or whoever is commissioning you. If there is no such person, you might find yourself denied access. This is very rare, but it's a reminder that you should call every archive you plan to visit before you go to ensure that their online info has not changed. Just because their website says they're open, they may be closed for renovation or may have changed their access rules. Check out their requirements.

You'll want to take a few important types of modern technology with you:
  • Digital Camera
  • USB flash card
  • Laptop computer
  • A pencil
  • 2 pieces of photo identification
Most places you visit will allow for digital photography, perhaps with a page limit. Others will be very strict and not allow cameras, forcing you to pay for photocopies, which adds up. The British Library has awesome resources, but their camera policy ruins it for researchers. An hour tube ride (train) to Kew at The National Archives opens a brilliant world of research freedom where cameras are welcomed and documents flow through a well-oiled machine of caring historians. It's like research heaven.

Bring a translator with you if you must go to national archives in a country where English is not the official language. My research took me to The Hague, in The Netherlands. People in Holland speak English better then you or I, but their records are in Dutch, and their computers are not online to do onsite google translation (a great tool btw).

And hire an English speaking driver. While they drive on the right side of the road in Holland, their street signs are all 15-letter words in tiny print on little signs set far off the curb - and they don't have odometers in their rental cars (making it difficult to follow directions on a map). In British colonized countries, such as Jamaica, Tanzania, The Bahamas or India, they drive like maniacs - on the wrong side of the road!

No matter where you go, treat the documents like the treasures they are. As you read an article in the pen of Benjamin Franklin, you get a sense of the awesome responsibility we have to preserve the documents for future generations.

Too much trouble? You won't think so once you've done it.

There's nothing in the world comparable to blowing 300-year-old dust out of your nostrils at the end of a long day perusing original documents.

So, don't forget to bring some Kleenex, too.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, great information, Tammy. Thanks for sharing your pearls of wisdom and tips on where to go and how to get information out there! This is very thorough and helpful! HUGE thanks!!


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