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University Writing Center
October 31, 2014

Digital Documents

University Databases are on-line archives of resources that will be useful in your research. A given database might contain digitized or transcribed versions of primary documents, newspaper, magazine, or journal articles, even entire books. Some databases also include audio and video documents. In almost every case, databases archive material that was published previously in a more traditional form, such as an academic journal. Most databases specialize, sometimes according to the type of material archived, such as netLibrary, a database that only archives books. Other databases specialize according to discipline, such as America: History and Life, which focuses on American history. Some specialize by period, such as Eighteenth Century Collections Online, which as that title suggests, contains books publishedin the Eighteenth Century but not books about the Eighteenth Century. The depth as well as the limitations of this database points out a significant difference between databases and the internet, particularly search engines on the internet. Whether you use Google, ask.com, or AOL Search, you are likely to get the same websites for the same search terms. Not so with a database. These databases do not take you to the internet, but to their own archived material. Consequently, you will only find the material in that archive. So don’t limit your research to a single database.        

While databases are accessed using a computer to get on the internet, databases are not actually part of the internet. They are closed sites, accessible only through subscription. The UTPA library subscribes to over 32 databases that have resources that can be used for historical research. If you log onto the internet on campus, you can go directly to these databases from the library link on the UTPA homepage. If you log onto the internet from your home computer you will be asked for a username and password before you are allowed to access a database. Use the same username and password you use to log onto a campus computer on campus. 

On-Line Databases

Project Gutenberg: Extensive source of primary and secondary documents in the public domain.

Perseus Digital Library: Primary and secondary sources in the original language and translation focused on the classical period

The Internet is not the best source for doing historical research. Students often go to the internet first because it is the source of information they are most familiar with. They are familiar with the internet precisely because it is an easily accessible resource that provides both broad and specific information about almost any topic. If you want to find out the definition of an unfamiliar word or the closest acupuncture clinic to your house, the internet can place that information at your fingertips. If you want to get a general idea about almost any historical event, from the crash of the Hindenburg to a biography of Sun Tzu, author of the 6th Century book The Art of War, the internet can deliver that information immediately. Internet research comes into problems is when you wish to dig deeper into a topic. In particular, internet sites have limited verisimilitude, which simply means, you can never be sure if you can trust what they say. We should, in fact, exercise a high degree of distrust when using internet sources. Our distrust of internet sources comes from one significant problem: we can never be sure who the author or sponsor is or their reasons for writing the website. A site might be designed by a professor at a major university for the use of students in his or her classes, a for-profit company intent on selling its products, or a high school student completing a class project. Caution should be taken when using internet sites. Remember, a history paper is asserting the factuality or truth of its claims, often based on the assertions of factuality or truth made by its sources. Your paper is only as strong as the sources you use. Wikipedia may be the best example of the use and possible misuse of internet sources.  

Wikipedia: It is NOT a good idea to use Wikipedia as a cited source in a history paper: first, the veracity, or factuality, of Wikipedia articles cannot be confirmed, and second, the authors and revisers of Wikipedia articles are often anonymous. However, used carefully, Wikipedia can be a gateway to other, more reliable and often difficult to find, digital resources. The best way to test the usefulness of a Wikipedia article is to scroll down to the “References” at the end of the article. A quick review of the references will reveal how thoroughly that article was researched. Be careful, though; even a well-researched and thoroughly cited article on Wikipedia should not be used without caution. Instead, the references can be used to locate sources you can then go directly to. For instance, if you were researching a specific American Civil War battle, you might go to the Wikipedia article titled, “List of American Civil War Battles.” This article only has two citations: A link to the U.S. National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program website, and a book, Lossing, Benson J., LL.D. A History of the Civil War 1861-65. Both these references would probably be too general for an article on a specific battle. However, the link for one of the battles listed, the “Sand Creek Massacre,” leads to an on-line article that includes 36 footnotes, 16 references, and 7 external links. The most useful references are 6 links to digital versions of primary documents and digital archives, both of which might be useful for a research paper about the Sand Creek Massacre. 

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