Is the internet a boon or bust for historians?
By Pat Lowinger
In our modern technological age and with the exponential development of the internet in the past three decades the quality, quantity and reliability of available source material for use/review requires careful and critical evaluation. This can all too often lead the neophyte researcher to stumble headlong into the use of unfounded or factually questionable research material. This is not to say that the internet is not without some very practical and powerful uses- the massive quantities of material/data available combined with a relative ease of access makes the internet an invaluable tool to the modern historical researcher.
The first and sometimes most overwhelming aspect of the internet is the sheer size and amount of information available. The ability of modern search engines to pull a plethora of information from such a broad area(s) can lead to ‘information’ overload. Which simply means, too often, the inclusion of superfluous reference material can obscure or mislead a researcher, or bog them down in the painstaking task of sorting through hundreds of poor-quality or off-topic references.
In addition, the internet itself has no regulation or review(s) as to the authenticity of the material contained within. It seems that every conjecture or opinion is given a place for display- whether or not it is founded or accepted in the field(s) of study in which it is being offered as a reference. All a person has to do to demonstrate this phenomenon is to type the phrase, ‘do vaccines cause autism?’ into Google and sort through the resulting hundreds of results claiming an affirmative response to the inquiry. Yet, neither the American Board of Pediatric Medicine nor The World Health Organization has ever published articles affirming a causal link. Too often, a certain level of credulity accompanies information obtained from the internet for no other reason than it has been put out there ‘in-print’ as it were.
To avoid the issues discussed above, it is very important for a researcher to know where a reference is coming from. Currently, there are an ever-growing number of primary and topical resources available through institutions and associations directly associated with professionals in their respective fields of study (commonly referred to as databases). These reference portals/search engines in the past were most often associated with libraries, museums or academic institutions. Today, there are an ever increasing number of reference portals or databases which are aggregates of more traditional sources such as journals and academic databases to form a database reference source (pool). Many databases are not open to the public, as is the internet in general- typically they are limited to pre-selected persons, institutions or students. A database site (portal) allows for the referencing of numerous smaller academic and institutional sources- while filtering out much of what would be considered background noise from the internet. These databases are the real workhorse of the researcher and allow for relatively quick access to topical, relevant and useful information in a particular field.
In closing, for the purposes of research, the internet can be a powerful tool. Used unwisely it can lead to the use of untrue or erroneous information. But in the hands of a knowledgeable researcher, relying on dedicated search engines, the internet can be the single most powerful tool for quickly accessing a wide-range of credible reference material(s).
Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
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