John Marszalek: How much do you use the Internet in your Civil War research and what concerns do you have about the information that appears on Civil War sites?


I have to admit that I am old-fashioned when it comes to research. While recently working on the manuscript for the forthcoming volume 32 of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, for example, I had available to me the digitized version of the first thirty one volumes and the volumes in hard copy. Almost always, I chose to reach for the printed version.

 Because of my years of searching through monographs, journals, and manuscripts, I feel more comfortable with paper in front of me. Conversely, my colleagues in the Grant project, having grown up with the Internet, more naturally search the digitized edition. In this case, we both find what we need, and we can depend on it.

 What is mind-boggling, however, is the number of internet sites that are full of error and faux interpretation. I like to think I can spot the useless from the useful, but I worry when I see people glibly citing questionable websites or "facts" from them. Students, from the elementary to the college level, now routinely look to the internet for all their information and too often accept without question what they find there.

 I use the internet often and find it incredibly convenient to be able to Google an unknown person or event or tap into something like the Lincoln Papers on-line.  Searching newspapers is infinitely more productive when doing so on-line than by cranking away at a microfilm reader. Being able to contact other scholars by e-mail to exchange ideas, at their and my convenience, expedites scholarly inter-action and furthers research.

Thus, I do not consider myself a Luddite, ready to destroy computers rather than accept their influence. I marvel at the vast amount of information now available in searchable form, but I worry that we are not routinely making quality distinctions about what we find in cyber-space.

 What is the answer? The internet must not be seen as providing the ultimate answers to all our historical problems. Use it, I say, but be careful and discerning.

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