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Monday, October 5, 2009

History at Your Fingertips


I have been away from this blog for a couple of months. I'm back. I have been spending my time doing some intensive reading and research into some of the history of 19th Century railroading. I have a few ideas that might mature into either a magazine article or a book.

One of the things that has been reinforced to me in my reading and research is how fortunate we are to now have extensive digital archives online. It is really extraordinary how much material that used to be available only in the largest university or public libraries is now readable online. I have been spending a lot of time in four archives in particular. The first is a combined effort of Cornell University and the University of Michigan called Making of America. The archive contains scanned copies of thousands of books and articles that were written in the 19th Century. The second is the Internet Archive which is a very rich source of text, images, and even motion picture clips. The third is a website that has ten million pages of 19th Century Upstate New York newspapers called Fulton's Postcards. The newspapers are all fully searchable and are a fascinating source of insight into the era.

The fourth, and in many ways the granddaddy of them all is Google Books. Not only are millions of books online and searchable but you can also save books to your own online library, make notations about the books, and get either original scanned images or digitized texts. If a book is particularly interesting and off copyright, you can download a complete pdf of the book to your desktop. To say that this is a powerful tool is an understatement. Google Books has some other very nice features including links to online booksellers and even the ability to find a library in your area that has the volume in question. If you are interested in looking into the history of any sort of technology, these are great to go beyond Wikipedia or just a straight Google search.

I have always been a used bookstore junkie and I have found some really terrific books browsing the shelves. But one of the nice things that comes out of Google Books is the link to used online booksellers that have let me buy books that I might never otherwise have found at very reasonable prices - sometimes as low as one cent (plus four bucks shipping).

Obviously, everything has not been digitized and the libraries and archives remain the first line of professional research. But for next to nothing, everyone now can access some of the best materials in the world.

There is probably nothing new in this post but sometimes I can't help but state the obvious. If you haven't seen any of these resources, check them out. If anyone knows of other archives I would like to hear about them.

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