Vol.8, No. 10 • Nov/Dec 2000
The Future of the Past: History Sources on the Internet
by Kenneth D. Fink, Reference Librarian, Oviatt Library, California State University Northridge

Imagine that a patron needs help with research for a novel she is writing that is set in 12th century France. How would you find historical information online describing daily life in a French village in the year 1185? What food did people eat? What clothing did they wear? What forms of entertainment did they pursue? Where could you quickly find this information? Historians and historical-fiction writers bring history to life through the skillful selection of such details from daily life.

For researchers of history, the number of Internet resources is increasing rapidly. Whether helping a patron research daily life in a medieval village, the effects of atomic radiation at Hiroshima, or even corporate histories, one can locate useful information on almost all historical topics online. The following provides some key resources useful to librarians and other database professionals tracing the march of time.

As for the facts of life in 12th century France, the Internet and the library offer researchers two powerful tools. Using the popular search engine Google [, May 2000], simply type “daily life in a 12th century French village.” Scroll down until you see “Medieval Technology-Reading List” []. Professor Paul J. Gans at New York University created this Medieval Technology and Everyday Life Bibliography for students in his course, “Medieval Technology and Everyday Life.” You will find books and articles on every aspect of medieval life, including food, crafts, trades, medicine, and military technology. Using a university library’s Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), one can locate many of the titles on Professor Gans’ Web site, as well as hundreds of books on all aspects of medieval life. There is even a serendipitous link to Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook, a powerful Web site created by Paul Halsall, that includes full-text, medieval source documents []. Incidentally, Yahoo! recently selected Google as its default search engine, supplementing Yahoo!’s own directory listings.

However, despite the explosion of Internet resources, researchers quickly realize that they will probably have to travel to a large public or academic/university library if they want to examine titles that appear on Professor Gans’ reading list, as well as scholarly books in general. Does the patron need a copy of Frances and Joseph Gies’ Life in a Medieval Village? Then they must either find it at an online or local bookseller, like [], or locate it in a library. If it’s not there, you might even try Inter-Library Loan.

Primary Sources on the Internet
Novelist Anne Perry once researched newspaper accounts on the unseasonably hot weather during one U.S. Civil War battle. Perry described the daily activities of soldiers in the field under the unbearable heat to give readers a feeling of witnessing the event.1 History researchers will want to examine not only secondary sources, such as the work of historians, but also primary sources, including newspapers, diaries, letters, artifacts, oral histories, and government records. Primary documents have begun wending their way onto the Internet. Reading the letters or diaries written by ordinary people living through extraordinary times gives one a visceral sense of the period like few other resources.

Many archives, such as state archives, are gold mines of primary documents and can often be accessed at no cost on the Internet. Archives stored in a public or academic library may require patrons to travel to the location, but the libraries usually impose no fee to use the archive, other than any copying costs. Obtaining access to a private archive requires permission by the owner.

Archival directories can help one locate not only primary historical resources, but also the library or institution that owns the item(s). Many academic libraries will have the following useful print archival directories: A Guide to Archives and Manuscripts in the United States;2Directory of Archives and Manuscript Depositories in the United States;3 and Guide to the National Archives of the United States.4 For locating British archives, try the excellent British Archives: A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom by Foster and Sheppard.5 Consult your friendly librarian for archival directories relevant to a specific topical area.

The federal government’s National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has its own Archives Library and Information Center []. The Archives Library and Information Center demonstrates NARA’s recognition that its “customers no longer expect to work within the walls of the library.” Consequently, NARA provides its staff and researchers worldwide with valuable links to government archives and periodicals, as well as to related Internet Web sites on subjects like Genealogy, the Holocaust, Vital Records, Black History, and Diplomacy, to name a few. This site is invaluable to history researchers.

Individual states are also busy placing historical records online. The Library of Virginia [, May 2000] Digital Library Program (DLP) has over 2 million original documents, including original land records, Bible records, and military lists dating from the 18th century. For writers inventing character names from the Colonial period, this is an invaluable resource. In fact, most states have an online presence. Researchers can, again, simply go Google, or the search engine of their choice, and type the state’s name followed by “state archives.”

Knowing how to search a library’s holdings through an Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC), quickly and skillfully, is an important tool that librarians and other database professionals can demonstrate for researchers. The University of California at Berkeley has an experimental digital library called the Berkeley Sunsite. There you will find “Libweb: Library Servers via the World Wide Web,” an astonishing single Web site with direct links to many public and academic library OPACs in the U.S. and around the world [, May 2000). The Berkeley Sunsite is definitely worth visiting, as it is on the cutting edge of digital library development. It houses an eclectic assortment of historical documents like the Jack London collection, the Emma Goldman papers, the American Heritage Project, Oral Histories Online, and even Online Course Readings for UC Berkeley Classes [].

Historical research may require accessing a university OPAC. Understanding how Library of Congress Subject Headings function is another very useful skill worth demonstrating for clients. Many researchers do not know that academic libraries in the U.S. organize books and other materials in accordance with the Library of Congress’ Subject Headings (LCSH). Most people are more familiar with the Dewey Decimal Classification System used by their local public libraries. While subject classification systems were created to make it easier to access collected knowledge, unfortunately the brilliant people at the Library of Congress who create the many subject headings cannot possibly anticipate the multitude of ways people think about a topic. Database professionals can demonstrate for users, for example, that if one types “Medieval history,” the OPAC will suggest: “USE Middle Ages — History.”

Sometimes the searcher may lack familiarity with the historical period in question. Adding the word “dictionary” (e.g., Middle Ages — History — Dictionary) to a search string can provide a resource, namely a dictionary, that can help a researcher with the subjects and terminology used during that period. Advise patrons to think creatively about their subject by planning ahead. Suggest they write down a few synonyms for their subject before searching an OPAC. Have them approach the subject like a reporter by identifying the who, what, where, when, and why of their subject. Patrons can explore the letters and numbers the Library of Congress assigns for each subject heading at the Library of Congress Classification Outline Web site [ May 1999].

The American Historical  Association (AHA) Web Site
The American Historical Association (AHA) publishes the book Guide to Historical Literature, considered by many the bible of historical research and a treasure chest for researchers.6 The AHA Web site is also worth a visit []. The Guide to Historical Literature is the decades-long work of more than 400 historians. It provides an annotated bibliography to historical reference works, articles, and books in virtually every area of historical scholarship. Although the last edition was published in 1995, it is difficult to imagine a single reference book with the scope of the Guide to Historical Literature.

While the Guide’s coverage favors European culture, there are sections on Latin American, African, and Asian history. In addition, through a cooperative arrangement with the Organization of American Historians (OAH), current issues of the American Historical Review and Journal of American History are available online line at the History Cooperative Web site [, May 2000].

Also, many academic libraries subscribe to ABC-CLIO’s online databases, American History & Life and Historical Abstracts [, September 2000]. American History & Life includes article abstracts, book reviews, and dissertation citations covering U.S. and Canadian history from the prehistoric period to the 21st century. Historical Abstracts is considered an essential index to scholarship in world history (excluding the U.S. and Canada). There are more than 500,000 abstracts of articles, books, and dissertations covering from 1450 to the present day. Both databases index more than 2100 journals.

State and Federal Government Resources
Federal and state governments offer a variety of useful Internet resources. The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) has a vast collection of inexpensive books on historical topics [, May 2000] one can order online. At the home page, in the “search” box, type “history” to retrieve over 500 purchasable documents, ranging from military history to the history of minorities. Select “minorities” to retrieve “Black Americans in Defense of Our Nation,” a pictorial history on the contributions made by African American citizens from the Colonial period to the Persian Gulf War — available for $22. The GPO is also a useful source for researching historical aspects of the Congressional Record and landmark Supreme Court cases.

Researchers may not know about the resources available at the Library of Congress (LOC), the world’s largest library and a leader in developing online collections [, May 2000]. The LOC is home to more than 22 million books, as well as journals, computer files, manuscripts, cartographic materials, music, sound recordings, and visual materials — some 119 million items. One can search the LOC’s catalog at

History writers will find the LOC’s American Memory: Historical Collection for the National Digital Library project of particular interest [, May 2000]. Seventy online collections tell the history of America in the pictures, maps, personal stories, and music of its citizens. The African-American Odyssey, for example, recounts the history of African-Americans in this country with 397 online pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division []. One will find online video of Teddy Roosevelt, collections of baseball cards, early American photography — everything to give the writer a vivid picture of American life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Business History Resources
Historical information about existing companies, particularly public ones, is generally easier to find than information about extinct or privately owned firms. Publicly traded companies are required by law to file financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Business Web sites created by companies like Yahoo!, Excite, Infoseek, and Microsoft provide helpful historical data about today’s business environment. Yahoo’s popular Finance Web site [] provides researchers with historical data, such as a company’s stock performance over the past decade, financial ratios, and even aid in identifying a company’s chief competitors.

A company’s annual report also offers useful historical data for the researcher. Report Gallery is a free Web site that lists more than 2,200 annual reports, including the majority of the Fortune 500 companies []. Business history researchers should appreciate Corporate Information, another Web site with more than 15,000 company research reports and over 300,000 public and private company profiles []. Researchers can search for companies by country, state, or industry. Corporate Information’s Web site also includes 1,700 company profiles in French and 600 in Spanish.

Historical information on old or extinct companies requires some detective work. Business, especially company information, before 1980 is less likely to appear online. The Library of Congress’ Guide to Business History Resources is a helpful Web site for unearthing company history information by identifying print resources, which academic libraries may hold [, June 2000].

Of course, a logical resource for business information is a business school. An excellent Web site for researchers is the University of Washington meta-site, listing the World Wide Web address for many of the top business schools in the U.S. []. However, many of a business school’s online resources may restrict access to authorized users. Still business school Web sites, like Berkeley’s [], provide historical resources, often unknown to researchers, to the public.

No discussion of resources for historical researchers would be complete without discussing the importance of genealogy. Genealogy sources help writers with invaluable information: common names, occupations, even causes of death. The progenitor of all genealogy Web sites is “Cyndi’s List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet” [, April 2000], with more than 63,000 hyperlinks to genealogy sites on the Internet. Cyndi’s inexhaustible list even includes a helpful tutorial site that instructs beginners in the fundamentals of genealogical research. Cyndi’s List has links to cities, counties, states, countries, and governments with genealogical records; it links to family Bible records in counties across the U.S, as well as cemeteries, funeral homes, and heraldry. It even has a special link for when one has “Hit a Brick Wall.”

Cyndi’s link for “Diaries and Letters” and oral histories is another archival jackpot for historical researchers. [, April 2000]. Cyndi’s List is a commercial Web site supported by and you will find advertisements for Cyndi’s List — The Book, which you can purchased online. Also, for $69.95 (price as of 5/2/2000) SierraHome also sells a set of 21 CD-ROMs containing more than 350 million names gathered from sources that include Ellis Island records, land records, Civil War Records, and the Social Security Index. Veterans’ service records can be researched at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) [, May 2000]. NARA has additional resources of interest, e.g., pictorial histories, for history researchers.

Armchair Travel for Internet Historians
Visiting a historical site fires the imagination and adds credibility to narrative. Historical novelists like to visit the places they write about, according to Edward Rutherford, author of the popular novel London.7 Rutherford once walked around Stonehenge at night to imagine what it might have been like to live in Britain’s ancient past. However, not everyone can hop on a plane to England, especially new writers on a limited expense account. The Internet offers writers and researchers on a tight budget an unusual and virtually free trip to exotic locations.

Webcams transmit live video from famous and not-so-famous locations. The “World Map of Live Web Cams” Internet site indulges writers with a taste for armchair travel [, April 2000]. A map of the world covered with red dots denotes the location of live video cameras around the world. One can look at what is happening at particular location in South Africa, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia, Alaska, and a multitude of other locations. You can find a list of Web sites with live Webcams in Google []. Simply type, “live pictures from around the world” to retrieve them.

Project Gutenberg — Books Online
Someday we may all read books on a hand-held, electronic device.8 Project Gutenberg is ready to make that a reality by providing the electronic library from which to download “Etexts,” or full-text books [, May 2000]. Click on the “search” to retrieve books by author, title, subject, language, or Library of Congress Subject Heading. Project Gutenberg has classic historical texts like Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, as well as contemporary history as in William Jefferson Clinton’s Inaugural Address — in all, more than 200 books on history. All books can be downloaded as simple text (.txt) or zipped file or read directly off the Web site. Project Gutenberg will have 10,000 titles online by the end of 2001. The only major limitation of Project Gutenberg is that it only makes available texts in the public domain, but that problem does not bother historians as much as other people, since they generally want older material.

Project Gutenberg, however, isn’t the only source for public domain books. Commercial vendors like netLibrary offer free electronic books that are no longer protected by copyright. While primarily a commercial vendor selling copyrighted textbooks to libraries and corporations, at netLibrary’s “Experience ebooks” Web site page [ reading_room.asp, September 2000], one can download over 4,000 titles. Also, at Yahoo!’s home page simply type “public domain books” in the search field to find additional Web sites with free ebooks.

Oral History Web Sites
History usually begins with people telling stories about what happened to their families and in their communities. What did the local people in Gettysburg say just after the battle that raged there in July 1863? We know what Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg in November 1863, but did any townspeople or town historians witness the battle?9 In small towns or villages, oral historians hold the community’s collective memories. Oral historians kept the past alive by retelling (and recording) the history of their communities for succeeding generations.

Oral histories have been collected in many university archives and special collections; now many of them have gone online [, May 2000]. The Rutgers Oral History Archives for World War II Web features interviews with men and women who took part in that conflict. It also has a hyperlink from the Rutgers Web site to other Oral History Internet sites like the Civil Rights Oral History Bibliography and the history of Labor Movement [, May 2000]. Historical research on the Internet is often a serendipitous expedition from one Web site to another excellent resource.
Is history relevant? Historical business information is the most transitory of historical information, primarily because it often has a short shelf life for decision makers. And yet equity investors might have saved a fortune from investments in worthless dot-coms (i.e., new Internet start-up companies), if they had only remembered the Tulip Craze in 17th century Holland. In Holland, a speculative frenzy drove up the price of tulips in short supply and high demand to the point that citizens were selling their homes to buy tulip bulbs, hoping that someone else would pay them even more. The bubble burst and many a Dutchman was left homeless.

Last year investors poured money into companies with “great expectations” yet no income, driving up the price of these stocks to absurd heights. Some called it the Greater Fool Theory — another fool will pay more and they did.

Forget the past at your peril.

History Meta-Sites
Historians will profit from the WWW-VL History Index Network at the University of Kansas [, May 2000]. Created to serve the needs of professional historians, the Web site’s easy-to-navigate home page includes topics such as “Research Methods and Materials” (e.g., Archives, Manuscripts, Booksellers), “Eras and Epochs” (Prehistory, Ancient Greece, et al.), “Historical Topics” (e.g., Women’s History, History of Science), and “Country and Region.” Select Ireland to examine online maps, dictionaries (Gaelic), genealogies, bibliographies, journals, archives, full-text manuscripts, libraries, and universities. This Web site can be used to explore many historical topics.

Yahoo! is a Web directory service with valuable lists of national and international archives. It links to schools such as the University of Minnesota and its James Ford Bell Library’s archive of primary historical documents of European expansion from 1400-1800. [, May 2000]. Recently Yahoo adopted Google as its default search engine, supplementing its directory collection.

Writing a novel about the artist Rembrandt? Go to the History of Art Virtual Library Web site [, May 2000]. This site contains links to art collections, library directories, and art associations. The link to “Yahoo!’s Art History Subject Listing” identifies specific artists and their works.

The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School also deserves special mention []. The Avalon Project has digitized seminal historical documents in law, politics, and economics. Many of these documents bear witness to man’s duplicity, but represent watershed events in human history. Historic documents such as the “Magna Carta,” “Mayflower Compact,” the Federalist Papers, and the “Emancipation Proclamation” are among those represented. Rarer documents in the collection include Native American peace treaties and a disturbing eyewitness report on the effects of “The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” compiled by the U.S. government. The Avalon Project is a “one-stop shop” for formal documents in humanity’s historical record. While at the Yale site, don’t forget to look at the Department of History’s “Interesting Links for Historians.”

Summing Up
Many people assume that you can find anything you are looking for on the Internet. True, there are full-text articles from journals and magazines on every conceivable subject on the Internet. There are oral histories, archives, electronic books, and live video cams. But the Internet has its limitations for researchers in the field of history. Simply put, the vast majority of most scholarly historical books must be purchased or tracked down in a library. But if searchers can reach those libraries, they may get to enjoy the hunt. Fortunately for the hunters, librarians are happy to share their knowledge.

Today publishers and libraries are experimenting with online books and digital collections. Technology can protect the author’s copyright through encryption devices, making it possible to sell and distribute books over the World Wide Web. University libraries are contracting with electronic vendors like netLibrary to make textbooks available to a wider audience [, May 2000].10 In time more and more books will go online, forming a digital virtual library. The future is now and promises that rapidly increasing numbers of books will be available online.

For students of history the Internet is young, but it is getting older and richer every day. There are full-text history articles from journals and magazines on every conceivable subject. There are Web-based oral histories, archives, e-history books, art history collections, and live video cams. While many scholarly history books only appear on library shelves, institutions and individuals around the country and the world are busy digitizing historical content for the World Wide Web. Broadband communication, too, should make archival video and audio files as accessible as plain text. Publishers and libraries will build digital collections together. Indeed, the past has a bright future on the Internet.

1. UCLA Festival of Books. Panel Discussion Given by Historical Fiction Writers: Anne Perry, Robin Maxwell, and Edward Rutherford. April 27, 2000.
2. A Guide to Archives and Manuscripts in the United States, Ed. Philip M. Hamer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
3. Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories in the United States. 2nd ed. National Historical Publications and Records Commission. New York: ORYX Press, 1988
4. Guide to the National Archives of the United States, National Archives and Records Administration. Washington, D.C., 1987.
5. British Archives: A Guide to Archive Resources in the United Kingdom. Janet Foster and Julia Sheppard. 2nd ed. London: M Stockton Press, 1988.
6. The American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature. Ed. Mary Beth Norton. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 []. May 2000.
7. UCLA Festival of Books. Panel Discussion Given by Historical Fiction Writers: Anne Perry, Robin Maxwell, and Edward Rutherford. April 27, 2000.
8. Today one can read books on the Pocket PC. Microsoft has loaded the Pocket PC, a Palm-pilot like device, with their eBook Reader to electronic books. A warning, though, the screen is absurdly small. 
9. At the “Three Days at Gettysburg” Web site researchers can read accounts of the battle from the townspeople’s perspective []. July 2000. 
10. netLibray markets its thousands of ebooks (online electronic texts) to public, academic, and special libraries, as well as individuals. They offer institutions a variety of creative purchase and rental agreements. 


KENNETH D. FINK works as a reference librarian at both the University Library, California State University, Northridge and at Pepperdine University. His e-mail address is

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