Having identified possible primary sources, students must then access them. Information technology adds a new dimension to this step in the research process.
I. "Dusty" or Traditional
Access to primary sources can be as straight forward as talking with a neighbor, looking at family photos, finding an autobiography in the school library or looking at some of the local history materials at the nearby public library. Libraries have traditionally included in their collections such materials as Documents of American History, historical atlases, collections of letters, books with photographs, etc. Libraries usually also have bound volumes of popular older magazines such as National Geographic and Saturday Evening Post and have microform versions of other newspaper and periodical articles accessible through indexes like Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and New York Times Index . Many libraries maintain clippings collections on topics of local interest and also house documents of local history.
A trip to the local video store may also reveal primary source materials. For example, Casablanca is part of the history of the 1940's. Produced in 1943, the film is a look at refugees in Morocco, and is even more revealing of American perspectives on the role of the U.S. in the world during World War II. Documentaries (not docu- dramas) may also be found at the video store or library.
Another traditional or "dusty" way of accessing primary source materials is to visit an archive, museum, genealogical society, historic site, historical society, battleground, monument, etc. With any luck the site is in a somewhat convenient location and open at a somewhat convenient time. Once at an archive, our historian will probably need to use a card catalog, printed index, or other specialized guides to the collection. Often there are special limitations put on the use of items because of rarity or fragility. Appointments and fees for use may be required. Some archives place limits on the age or scholarly connections of potential users. It is not unusual for photocopying to be forbidden.
Any discussion of access to materials must include interlibrary loan. Libraries will often loan materials, but students should be aware that receiving materials could take weeks. Increasingly, libraries are able to fax materials.
As we have seen, access to some primary sources can be straight-forward. Access to others can be extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming. Access to still others is absolutely impossible due to travel, time, and financial constraints. Researching, either "dusty" or digital, involves a lot of hard work.
Digital or electronic access to materials, through both indexing and through representations of the documents and artifacts themselves, is growing exponentially. On Internet are virtual libraries, virtual natural history museums, virtual exhibits, online bookstores (www.amazon.com) and sites which will sell everything from original postcards to reproductions of Civil War rifles. There are also genealogical records (www.familysearch. org, a site put up by the Mormon Church), patent and census records, magazines that exist only in digital format, documents of all kinds, Supreme Court hearings, photographs, videos, audio, etc. At a public or academic library the researcher can use a computer to access digital reference books like The Grove Dictionary of Art Online (the print version is 34 volumes) or 109 years worth of National Geographic on CD-ROM. Every state has at least one depository for patent and trademark information.
The "dusty" method of access to periodicals and newspapers involved using paper indexes such as Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and New York Times Index as well as a host of other specialized indexes. Although at this time using such indexes is still the only way to access many older periodicals and magazines, researchers increasingly use electronic databases available in CD-ROM or on Internet. Some of the indexes provide citations about the material (title, name of magazine, date, pages, and availability) but increasingly online databases provide access to the full text and even a graphical representation of the item itself. But a digitized version of an item is not the same as the original item. An analogy would be a hand written letter from a friend ("Where does she get that crazy stationery? Her hand writing is worse than ever!") as compared to an email. The content might be the same but content is not everything.
One of the exciting concepts within digitization of libraries is the creation of virtual libraries. Through these a researcher can access both primary and secondary sources. The largest effort to make primary sources materials available online is the American Memory Project from the Library of Congress. For almost 200 years, the main purpose of the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, was to be a research library for Congress; it also was a repository for America's treasures. It was also viewed by many as "the library of last resort", the place to visit when all other possibilities in the local community or university were exhausted.
A new age of access to the Library of Congress began with the American Memory pilot program. In 1990, American Memory was launched as a five year pilot program to test the concept of utilizing digital technology to make some of the Library's rare and unique Americana collections available to the community at large. Of the Library's nearly 110 million items, 70 million are in special, or non-book collections. From these, the pilot program digitized and put on CD-ROM almost 300,000 items, including:
- photographs from the Matthew Brady Civil War collection,
- early films of Thomas Edison,
- postcards and pictures from turn-of-the-century America,
- life histories from the WPA Federal Writers' Project,
- early sound recordings of America's leaders, and
- documents of the Continental Congress Constitutional Convention.
By 1994 it had become obvious that the Internet was an alternate to CD-ROM for distributing digitized documents and images from the American Memory collection. In July 1994, the Library of Congress established its World Wide Web site (www. loc.gov) and in line with its commitment to make resources accessible to students and educators, established "The Learning Page" (lcweb2.1oc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu) which debuted in March 1996 and received more than 100,000 hits in its first six months online. The Learning Page has grown substantially since its beginning and now includes a project where teams of teachers and library media specialists apply to become "American Memory Fellows" and develop units teaching the use of primary sources to k-12 students. In these units, teachers are using primary sources to supplement or enhance textbook-based curricula and to stimulate critical thinking; library media specialists use the same materials to teach research methods.
The American Memory site drew 132,000 visitors in February 1999. These visitors had access to 1.7 million items with a goal of 5 million by next year, the library's bicentennial. The target is to make available 80 million items that can not be easily obtained elsewhere. Educators should be aware that items like early movies and sound recordings, maps, manuscripts, Presidential papers, photographs, and baseball card collections are available. Also accessible electronically are 2,800 lantern slides representing the work of landscape architects including Frederick Law Olmstead with views of cities, buildings, parks, maps, models, etc. in a collection entitled "American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920." Fragile and rare books are also being put online. Besides its own collections, the Library of Congress plans to put other institutions' materials on the American Memory site. Some upcoming digital collections will be Civil War materials form the New York Historical Society and the archives of the Chicago Daily News from the Chicago Historical Society. Now the Library of Congress can be the "library of first resort" on the Internet. It is a place where teachers and students find the "virtual reading rooms" open, accessible, and inviting to enter.
Digitized versions of artifacts can also be accessed online. One example is the National Park Service (www.nps.gov) which provides links to national historic sites such as the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey (www.nps.gov/edis/home.htm). A visitor to this site can find out about artifacts including manufactured goods such as photographs and radios as well as lab furnishings, machines, tools. In the archives are 5 million pages from lab notebooks and drawings as well as family papers. There are 26,000 photos of which some are available on line. Although the number of primary sources that a researcher can use through the website is limited mainly to photographs, this site and similar ones help the historian/student in search of primary sources by identifying their location, accessibility, etc. After all, not everything is available through digitization; there will always be a need to be in physical contact with a source. This web site also offers ways that the researcher can obtain objects through loans of materials or copies of photos.
Historians recognize that newspapers offer a window on the times in which they were published. Newspapers reporters have been known to say that they "write the first draft of history." Every fact may not be in the story. Every consequence may not have been questioned. Yet the "eyewitness's story evokes unforgettable urgency and energy, and a sense of truth"(9). Not only news articles, but photographs, want ads, advertisements, editorial columns, and many other features capture a sense of cultural history. Yet newspapers are very fragile. There is a growing interest in preserving these important documents. The U.S. Newspaper Program (www.neh.fed.us/ html/usnp.html) is a national effort to locate, describe, preserve, and provide public access to this type of human record which can be found in public libraries, county courthouses, newspaper offices, historical museums, college and university libraries and archives. Newspapers are preserved on microfilm, micro-opaque, eye-readable reproduction or facsimile. As technology moves forward, an increasing number of newspapers will also be available digitally.
A word of caution about digitization: "No digitized version can match the original - its handwriting or typography, its layout, its paper and all the paratextual clues to its meaning", says Professor Darnton. Think about the front page of a newspaper and the additional information you can gain from just be seeing it in its entirety. The importance of the article is indicated by the type-size of its headline, its position on the page, and accompanying photographs or sidebars. The article in isolation on a screen eliminates some of the context that shapes the meaning.