The amount of online content continues to grow exponentially, making the Internet an indispensable tool in historical research. Clay Johnson, online database expert and author of the cleverly written book The Information Diet, contends that with so much readily available online data, it is critical to make informed choices, maintaining a “healthy diet” of information consumption. We find his point especially pertinent when the stakes are high, such as in legal issues.
Law firms have ready access to a vast array of information, and there are many excellent online resources available. This can represent a huge savings in time and effort in compiling research; however, like an all-you-can-eat buffet, one must be careful – the buffet likely includes lots of bad choices. Without a research plan, it is remarkably easy to spend too much time and end up with a fat pile of material that is high in volume but low in usable information. In short, if your case has a historical dimension, it’s critical to be an educated and conscious consumer of your online resources. Here’s a recipe for becoming more savvy, drawn from our experience.
Create Your Ideal Meal Plan
Before you launch into the research for documentation, think carefully through the issue at hand and frame questions neutrally so as not to skew results. Capture useful historical context prior to embarking on your search. Make a note of any agencies or organizations you believe would have collected data relevant to your issue-the more precise you can be, the better. Identify your geographic locus, if any, as well as key people, building your list of the latter as you can. Then ask: what types of records are you most interested in finding, did these agencies and organizations create or receive them, and what’s your critical time frame? You’ll end up with a list of ideal data sets to look for, like “Centralia, Washington, city records listing factory sales in the 1940s,” or “ICC shipment records filed by the Nickel Plate Railroad in 1972-1975.”
Seek Only the Healthiest Sources
Once you’ve defined your desired records, look beyond Wikis to get to the meat of what’s available. Wikipedia and similar sites can be a good and even appetizing start to informing your search, but there are serious pitfalls to user-generated content. A college student once unobtrusively inserted the phrase “And then he became a clown and died” at the end of hundreds of biographical profiles of former members of Congress (true!). Imagine that “fact” slipping into discovery! Enlist your law librarian or historical consultant to determine the reliable resources that are likely to have the types of documents you’ve identified, and where those online tools can best be accessed.
Conduct a Well-Balanced Search
Many national papers such as the New York Times as well as a large number of local papers and trade journals are online. Keep in mind that they might not be available directly from your computer; many are accessible only in person at a local or state library. The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has numerous resources available online. Federal government resources on the Web have also increased exponentially in recent years. For example, the EPA has an extensive publications library that captures even elusive reports going back to the 1970s.
Build an Even More Satisfying Menu
Last, use your early findings to identify new leads. If you were researching for a Superfund case and found a Wall Street Journal company profile from 1956 that referenced a contract for missile components to be made at the site you’re interested in, try to identify and learn more about who in the DoD let the contract or oversaw product development, production, and testing and created other records that may be accessible by other means. The article might mention an office or command whose obsolete yet pertinent waste disposal regulations may also be available online. Or, taken together, this online documentation may suggest that you could go after paper records of the same unit, held at the National Archives or a federal library.
There are limits to any online research — it’s not all up on the Web and it probably never will be — but conscious and creative consumption of the online feast can lead to a very healthy body of research results.
Originally published in our HAIpoints newsletter. View newsletter page.