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A House Divided
Posted at 02:12 PM ET, 03/14/2011

Waite Rawls: 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?

Good tools can make us more productive, but they usually come with instruction manuals and with warning labels. All of the same could be said about the Internet.

The Internet has clearly made research easier, faster, and more effective. Today, many primary source documents--from the official records to period newspapers and muster rolls--are available on line. And many of them are easily "word searchable," so a researcher can find more data and find it faster than ever before. The internet has also made it far easier for the Museum of the Confederacy to work with researchers who want to use our archives. Instead of copies being made and mailed or faxed, a scan and an e-mail is cheaper and faster. Instead of long telephone calls between the archivist/library manager and a researcher, an e-mail inquiry and response is more productive even if it comes at the cost of decreased personal relationships between the two.

Software applications available on the internet have revolutionized many areas of study. For example, using new technologies, researchers are "finding" things in photographs that were never before visible.

But there are no good instruction manuals for the above, and we are all still early in our learning curves. Who knows how far we can and will advance in our study of history based on new technologies, many delivered over the internet.

And there are also no warning labels so I see three distinct problems with the Internet for research. The first is plagiarism which is becoming a real problem in colleges and universities. The internet makes it too easy for some to fall to the temptation to cut and paste rather than research and write. The second problem deals with attribution. For the keen reader, seeing an author's sources is a great aid to analyzing the author's fact base. A page in a published book will not change, but a URL may be here today and gone tomorrow.

The third problem is clearly the biggest. It is so easy to create a website and load it with content; and it is so difficult to decipher the credibility of the content. There is no warning label that says "Quoting from this website may be injurious to your health." Many of the sites and postings look quite plausible at first glance, and casual researchers (or those who are simply lazy) will see the information and use it without questioning its source. And many of the contributors to those sites are people with an ax to grind or a point of view that is not generally accepted but gets buried below credible-looking data. The same could be said of books, especially self-published books today, where there is no editor or publisher to weed out fact from fiction. But the abuses are much more prevalent with the Internet, making,"I read it on the internet" the rough equivalent to "I heard it from a drunk at a bar."

So what is a researcher to do? Clearly, use the internet for easy access to primary source documents. Use it for tips on how to locate other primary source documents. Use it to speed up and make more effective your relationships with archivists. Find a better attribution than a URL.

What is a reader of content on the internet to do? The buyer should beware.

By Waite Rawls  |  02:12 PM ET, 03/14/2011

Categories:  150th anniversary, News

 
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