How Do I Find the Good Stuff?
On August 31, 2004, I typed “Leonardo last supper” into Google™. The search engine returned over 45,800 links. The most popular sites, i.e., the ones with the most hits, came first. Really first-rate sites, those created by art historians and experts on the Renaissance, were on the list generated by Google™. So were third-rate ones and worse. And therein lies the problem. No one has the time to look at more than a handful of the possibilities. Are there ways of sorting through the overwhelming numbers of web pages and locating the ones we can use most effectively? There are. None are foolproof, but all work.
These are sites that screen online resources. There are quite a few of these. Here are several of the best.
1. EDSITEment, co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, selects what its advisory panels judge to be the richest sites in the humanities. Since this process yields a small number of sites each year, many very useful resources are omitted. But those chosen are excellent. And NEH staff members have created lesson plans for some of these sites. These are keyed to primary and secondary students, but can prove useful for undergraduates, especially those in survey courses, as well. Further, the endowment has launched a major initiative to create lesson plans for the whole of American history, using EDSITEment resources.
2. History Matters, “the online U.S. Survey” at George Mason University, brings together an array of resources. These include primary sources, discussions of how to use different kinds of historical evidence, interviews with leading scholars, lesson plans, descriptions of successful assignments using web-based materials, and an annotated list of online resources. Anyone seeking to incorporate new media into their American history courses should begin here.
3. Also created by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media is World History Sources. It provides annotated links to some 200 online collections of primary sources, essays on how to use different kinds of sources, and sample assignments for each type. This too should be a first stop for anyone teaching world history or Western civilization.
4. Merlot (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Teaching) casts a wider net. Aimed “primarily” at students and teachers in higher education, it recruits volunteers to review web sites within their areas of expertise. It also sponsors conferences and posts assignments for specific sets of materials. The peer reviews can be especially useful ways of locating not only the resources you are seeking but also of happening upon materials you had not previously considered using.
5. The American Civil War Homepage at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville typifies those portal sites that focus upon a specific period or country.
6. H-Net is a good way to learn about the existence of particular pages.
Needless to say, so rapidly do new sites appear that none of the portals can keep up. In the case of EDSITEment, only sites that are nominated are reviewed. Something similar is true of History Matters and World History Sources. Their staffs necessarily rely upon recommendations. Merlot does as well. And it relies upon volunteers. Large gaps in coverage are the inevitable result. This is not a calamity. We do not even want, much less need, to choose among all the available resources. These portals point us in useful directions and provide us with helpful model assignments. At some point every instructor will move beyond their resources but only after acquiring a great deal of material and ideas.
H-Net is the largest (and still growing) set of e-mail discussion lists in history and the social sciences. Some are quite specific, like H-Ethnic or H-1960s, and focused as much upon research as teaching. Others are much broader and dedicated exclusively to teaching, such as H-Teach (Teaching College History), H-Survey (the U.S. Survey), and H-World. You can join as many as you like. There is no fee, although H-Net does solicit contributions. I have co-edited H-Ethnic for a number of years. Among the most common messages to the list are requests for members to recommend teaching materials or approaches. Sometimes these involve online resources. Because most lists have substantial numbers of participating members (H-Ethnic has upwards of 1,000, for example), you can use them as complements to portals. Portals open the way to a wide variety of resources. Lists permit you to custom-design requests.
H-Net Reviews is not a discussion list, but a resource for coordinating the book and web site reviews of all of the participating lists. It stores all the reviews in annual “volumes” that are fully searchable.
Everyone, including your students, uses these routinely. Why? Because it is so easy. On September 7, 2004, I typed “poll data Americans angels” into Google™. Within a few seconds I was looking at this from PollingReport.com:
I had the data I was seeking, including the organization that conducted the poll, the date upon which it had been gathered, the number of respondents overall and to the particular question, the phrasing of the question, and the margin of error. Not only do teachers use search engines to check facts—my Leonardo search was prompted by the need to establish the date his “Last Supper” was completed—so do our students. This means, like it or not, we have to give tutorials about how to use search engines. Since I want to reserve class time, I distribute these hints.
1. The wording of your search makes all the difference. Include relevant information. If you type in “Brady Civil War battle photographs,” the first site of the 9,500+ returned will be the Selected Civil War Photographs Home Page at the Library of Congress’ American Memory project. The second will be a page at the same site for teaching with these images. The third will be the National Archives Digital Classroom site on Mathew Brady and the Civil War. This is exactly the kind of sites you want. If you type in “Brady photographs,” Google™ will return 105,000+ sites! The Library of Congress page will still be first, but a site on Brady portraits at the Smithsonian will be second. This is a wonderful site, but not what you were looking for. If you type in “Brady,” you will get almost three million sites. And you will have to scroll to page four before finding the Smithsonian site and then, finally, the Library of Congress site, but not its home page. The effort of the extra keystrokes in your search request is definitely worth it.
2. Pay attention to URLs. Search engines list sites by how may visitors they attract. The most popular sites sometimes are also the best, as with the Brady search, but there is no guarantee. You may find yourself at “Dave’s Renaissance Days” site or “Sally’s I Dig Leonardo” page. If you do, you are doing something wrong. The URL tells you where a site is located. This is valuable, time-saving information. You can assume that anything you find at a site created for the Library of Congress, the National Archives, or the Smithsonian will have been carefully researched by knowledgeable staff. So too with sites hosted by major museums. Anything you find at an online exhibit by the Art Institute of Chicago or the Chicago Historical Museum or their equivalents is trustworthy. If you have never heard of a particular museum or historical society, look for a link on the home page to a description of its collections. URLs also tell you the type of institution hosting a site: .org stands for non-profit organization; .edu stands for educational institution. Many .edu pages are student efforts that you can use at your own risk. Others, however, are projects sponsored by the college or university. Here again the home page will tell the tale. These sites are almost always reliable. Also reliable, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree, are pages created by teachers for the use of their own students. Commercial sites, those with .com urls, demand more caution. On September 8, 2004, I searched Google™ for “Martin Luther faith alone.” The first hit was a .com created by R. C. Sproul who, according to his web site, “is the founder and principal teacher of Ligonier Ministries, which provides Christians with materials on theology, history, Bible study, apologetics, and Christian ethics. He is also Visiting Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Knox Theological Seminary in Florida and holds positions at Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary.” The site advertises Sproul’s booklet defending Luther’s reading of Scripture and chastening those evangelicals, like the Rev. Billy Graham, who consort with Catholics. The Rev. Sproul plays by the rules. He makes it clear why he put this site together and where he stands on the issue. The visitor to his site can make an informed judgment. This is not always the case.
3. Read the “About Us”/”About this Project” pages. Web authors have developed protocols over the years. Perhaps the most important is to identify yourself, list your credentials, name any sponsoring or funding sources, and explain your basic approach. These pages are the web equivalent to the acknowledgements page and preface in a book. You probably do not read either. You should. And you certainly should read the “about us” page. If you cannot find it, you should exit the site.
4. Cite the sites. This means including the URL and the date you visited the site. This may strike you as unnecessary since the date is often the day before an assignment is due. But I post your notes to the course web site, and visitors will read them well into the future. And, given the way sites disappear, they need the date.
This is hardly the last word I will have on the subject, I tell my students. We discuss how to assess web sites routinely throughout the course. Most students have a great deal of experience with search engines, often more than I, but their surfing need not have given rise to good habits. They often have more confidence in their ability to judge sites than they should. The “tips” are enough for a beginning, however.
One good site often leads to others. People who invest the care needed to create a first-rate web page usually are very good guides to other pages. They may not take the time to annotate their suggestions, which in a more perfect world they would, but they have high standards.