Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Historians love documents. It's our immediate connection with people who have passed. When we feel a document, we surge with emotion. When we see a document, we visualize real people. When we discover a document, we thrill in uncovering history.
The Internet--no matter how fast, how sophisticated, or how hip--will never replace real history.
The world wide web, however, offers historians something they've never had before--the world! No longer are we shackled by clumsy card catalogs, burdensome reference manuals, and far away repositories. The internet offers the historian freedom to search, freedom to explore, and freedom to engross.
Specifically, the Internet gives the Civil War historian these advantages: it's accessible, searchable, economical, and adaptable. It also has one danger--it's susceptible.
Accessibility to documents, artifacts, and even places has been a huge hindrance to historians. The Internet makes these virtually accessible. Things once tucked in archives boxes now are retrievable. Items once hidden in attics now are available. Priceless objects secured in vaults now are viewable. Accessibility to vast, almost infinite resources, has presented the historian with exciting opportunities to offer new stories and new interpretations of the Civil War.
And we can do this without bankrupting our accounts. Research used to be very expensive. Since we had to visit the repositories where original sources are located, we paid for travel, hotels, food, and reams of photocopies. And our most valuable possession--our time--was lost in process. Now we can stay at home and print from our desktop. The internet is an economic godsend for historians.
The searchable quality of the Internet enables anyone to conduct research. This "democracy" may offend professional historians who spent years obtaining degrees and practicing arcane methodologies. But history should not be limited to the self-chosen. Nothing replaces the joy of a kid or a geriatric who discovered--conducting their own individual internet research--their ancestor served in a Union or Confederate unit. They suddenly become Civil War buffs for life.
I also like the Internet's adaptability. Ever try reading microfilmed newspaper? The print typically is so tiny it is almost illegible. With a click on the computer, I can easily magnify digitized newsprint, and my eye strain disappears. Hurrah for the Internet's built-in bifocals.
Warning! Beware of susceptibility. Regardless of the Internet's many advantages, the historian must be alert for fraud. Fraudulent documents and objects abound, especially in the Civil War arena. Just because it's posted on the internet doesn't mean it's real. Historians must be cautious and not be carried away with the exuberance of a previously unknown discovery that appears only on the internet. It's too easy to be fooled . . . and made a fool.