The Web and Historical research

Today we will be looking how the use of the web effects historical research (by the way, I have noticed that pretty everyone pronounces the “h” in the word “history”, but some people do not pronounce the “h” in the word “historical”, in fact I often see the word “an” used before the word historical, as in “an historical debate. If any reader decides to comment on this blog, feel free to also state whether or not you pronounce the “h” in “historical”). The website I looked for this blog is the internet archive, a site with a feature called the Wayback Machine that allows a user to view a wide range of different websites as they were at different points in time. This site can be quite useful in doing historical research as it can allow the researcher to view a particular site they are interesting in as it appeared on a given date (though not all dates are available). In many ways, depending on the site the researcher views, this can mean access to “primary documents”. For instance one site I looked at on the internet archive was the White House website, the earliest version of which available from the internet archive’s Wayback Machine is from December 1997 back before I had a computer. One old White House page I viewed was from December 26, 2003 (a short while after I had gotten my first computer, which was a Christmas gift that was set up a few weeks early), which had a number of items on the page including the President’s Christmas Message, a picture of President Bush making a Christmas Eve phone call to members of the armed forces, and a list of some of the President’s “major speeches” at that time such as his speech about the capture of Saddam Hussein. One of the other pages of the White House website I looked at using the internet archive was from April 17, 2008. The White House main page at that time focused mostly on President Bush’s welcoming of Pope Benedict XVI to the White House the day before, but it also mentioned the visit of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the White House on the 17th and stories about President and Mrs. Bush commemorating the 265th birthday of Thomas Jefferson and President Bush discussing climate change. Speaking of Benedict XVI, an internet archive view of the Vatican website’s homepage at 07:47 on April 17 shows an image of an umbrella over the Keys of St. Peter, representing that the Holy See was vacant at that time (i.e. there was no Pope), while the next available view of the same website, from about ten hours later (17:08 or 5:08 p.m.) shows the a different picture, the Papal Tiara atop the Keys of St. Peter, which appears above the message “HABEMVS PAPAM BENEDICTVM XVI” (meaning “We have a Pope. Benedict XVI”).

To a degree using this site is a bit different than using more traditional sources such as books. Among other things using this site is easier than going to a library or an archive, and it is quite fun to look at sites as they once were. In a way it does change how I think about sources. Without this site, I would tend to think of sources as being more about paper sources or professional databases, but using the internet archive really any old website can be an historical source, not only more prestigious/professional sites (like the White House or the Vatican websites), but also everyday, “low culture” sites (like online forums), if not for “documents” per se, then at least for a view into how people reacted to various events (for instance how did people post about 9/11 on a certain sports forum during the hours and days following the attacks?). Is using such a site qualitatively different between using a physical archive? Probably. Among other things a physical archive probably has some staff members that can help the researcher out, and the experience (i.e. actually going there and walking through the archives) is different.

Of course this blog would not be complete without a couple links to some old views of CCSU’s website, like this webpage (new @ ccsu) or this (more recent) webpage. Unfortunately the Internet Archive does not (yet) have any old views of my blog,

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