Online records

When I was working on my master’s thesis, one of the things I wanted to do was examine the federal pension applications of King’s Mountain veterans.  The NARA Rev War pension files are fantastic sources, sort of like miniature autobiographies of common soldiers along with supporting documentation.  Thing is, there are a heck of a lot of them, and I was only after pension files from veterans of one particular battle, so each roll of microfilm only had a few documents that were relevant to my project.  I spent as much time fast forwarding through microfilm reels to get to what I needed as I did reading the material I wanted to see.

Fortunately, people who are interested in using the Rev War pension files have it a lot easier these days.  Almost all of them are available at Fold3, one of the best subscription services to access digitized material.  These aren’t transcriptions, mind you, but digital versions of what you’d see if you were looking at the microfilm.  All you have to do is pay a subscription fee and you can peruse these documents to your heart’s content while sitting on the couch in your pajamas.  No gas mileage, no parking hassles, no library closing hours, no other researchers hogging the microfilm reader, and no duplication costs.

The Rev War pension files are just one example of the sort of thing you can access through these online subscription services—pay vouchers, muster rolls, the records of the Southern Claims Commission, Indian treaties, journals of the Continental Congress, Washington’s letters.

There’s clearly a lot to be said for these online services, and yet I haven’t run across that many academic history books that cite them.  Part of the reason for this is simple: people haven’t been digitizing manuscripts for all that long.  But even when it comes to more recent books, I don’t see that many online collections cited.  I know a lot of genealogists who make extensive use of these online services, but not many professional historians who do so.

Again, these sites offer digitized versions of the exact same thing you’d see if you consulted the microform, so on the face of it it’s hard to see why there would be any difference in citing one instead of the other.  In fact, if one of the purposes of citation is accountability (i.e., to allow readers to easily check an author’s sources), citing an online digitized document would seem to facilitate that better than citing the same thing from a roll of microfilm or a folder in a vault.

So is it just me, or are academic historians reluctant to use online services like Fold3, and is there some reason for that?  And will we start to see these types of services utilized more frequently by academic researchers as time passes?

(By the way, if it seems like I’ve been obsessing lately about choosing among different formats of primary source material, I plead guilty as charged.  This book project has made it something of a pressing issue for me.)

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