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Magazines > ONLINE > November/December 2007
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Online Magazine

Vol. 31 No. 6 — Nov/Dec 2007

Everything Old Is New (and Online) Again
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Information professionals first encountering the Web a decade ago scoffed at its usability as a research tool for historical data. At that time, it looked like the Internet would provide only the newest (and possibly only technical) information. Too many info pros, not to mention our vendors, took a somewhat smug and supercilious attitude toward our users, clients, students, and faculty members when they wanted us to find older materials. One journalism professor went on record as deploring the naiveté of his students who, when asked to research historical real estate records housed in his university’s archives, instead searched Google.

Times have changed. The Wayback Machine reveals older iterations of Web sites. Library and museum digitization projects show us artifacts of the past well beyond when the first Web site appeared. Publishers, such as the American Institute of Physics, are seeing revenue streams and member benefits in providing a full range of their journals, digitized from whenever their first volumes were printed until today. Some of these journals now have digital backfiles stretching back a hundred years. ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers provides digitized versions of major newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune dating from 1849, The New York Times from 1851, and The Washington Post from 1877. There are also book-scanning projects from Google and Microsoft (the oldest book scanned by Microsoft is De civitate Dei, published in 1475). Google News provides some news sources from 200 years ago. Some of these aren’t news as we think of news today, however; instead they’re legal documents from Wolters Kluwer’s LoisLaw dating from the 1770s.

The Internet has opened up the past and revealed some flaws in what we thought we knew. Particularly when one culture recorded what it believed to be true about another culture, inaccuracies could easily be introduced. Sometimes those gathering information, taking photographs, or describing daily life simply got it wrong. They made assumptions that weren’t correct or they were too rushed to verify that, say, a photograph of a Ute was actually a member of the Ute tribe rather than another one. In other instances, researchers paid indigenous peoples, such as New Zealand’s Maori, for information but were given false facts.

The universality of the Web allows these misinterpretations to be corrected. Someone familiar with the history and culture can set the record straight. At the same time, however, contentious issues arise regarding digital rights. The Western constructs of intellectual property law do not transfer well to indigenous cultures in Africa, Australia, and even North America, where ownership is communal rather than individual. This can put folk medicine, for example, on a collision course with Western medicine. Does indigenous knowledge of herbal remedies relate to treating and preventing AIDS?

Opening up the past—preserving historical documents, images, and objects—is not only a boon to researchers, but potentially a means to enhancing greater cultural understanding. It can also present challenges to the Western framework of knowledge, and it certainly tests some information vendors’ financial business models.

Marydee Ojala [] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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