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Writing about History in 2011


J Dennis Robinson writing history in home office

The bottomless library  

We are fast approaching the point where every book about Portsmouth published before 1921 is now available free online. I find it easier these days to pull down a digital copy of Brewster’s Rambles About Portsmouth from Google Books than to walk across the room and pull the same paper book off my shelf.  The online version is searchable in seconds. I can clip sections from the book and email any passage to my Evernote filing system. This allows the historian to compare sources better and to fact-check faster. Purists who complain that the Internet is turning us all soft and lazy have no idea how hellishly dull and time-consuming this kind of digging used to be.  

Last year Google announced that, so far, it has scanned 15 million books. The company expects to have scanned all 129,864,880 known books by the end of this decade. With millions of old books, newspapers, and magazines being added to the Web each year, researchers like me are in heaven.  

Last month Google released its online e-book reader that makes it easier for us to actually see books that are in the public domain online for free. Viewers can see the actual pages, or swap to a digital version that allows us to expand the font size, search, and bookmark pages. You can even add a personal review or store the digital books in your own private online library. The new Google eBookstore now makes it possible to buy out-of-print books too. It is a controversial project that makes me nervous as an author and ecstatic as an historian.  

Google Scholar, another search engine, allows me to dig through historical research that might appear only in academic papers, professional articles, or college theses. But I can also use Google Blog or Google Realtime to see, for example, if anyone in the world is talking about Celia Thaxter at this very second. If I find an article in a foreign language, Google Translation can (sort of) turn it into English. Google Alert pings me with an email if someone on the planet is posting info online about my chosen topic. Google Map lets me track down and see locations I could never visit. In December Google and Harvard announced the completion of a four-year project that allows historians to track how specific words have evolved from 1800 to the present day. That may not excite you, but it’s going to be a killer tool for me. 


Editing on the fly  

I finished a new book last week and as any author can tell you, that’s when the fun stops – because that’s when the editing and the proofreading begin. I use a software called Zoomtext, popular among blind and low-vision readers. Zoomtext allows my computer to read my written work back to me. It sounds like the familiar Stephen Hawkins-robot voice. I’ve been using this system for years because my spelling stinks and my eyesight is terrible. It’s a great tech tool, but it forces me to sit for hours in front of the computer screen as I clean up my prose for the publisher.  

That was last year. Lately I’ve begun emailing my completed manuscripts to my Kindle e-reader. The new Kindle can hold 3,000 books and can go almost a month without recharging. Using the highly readable “electronic paper” screen, I can easily edit my own work on this portable device that has its own little keypad. I can also turn on the text-to-speech (TTS) function and the Kindle will read to me. With a pair of headphones, I can now edit and proof my own stuff while traveling or while sitting on Smuttynose Island without a computer or electrical outlet in sight. Using the cloud, an iPad and a Kindle, the historian can work from anywhere in 2011.  

The latest tech toy  

Historians often rely on interviews. When possible we like to get the facts from the horse’s mouth. My Google Voice account allows me to do an interview by cell phone and, with the subject’s permission, send a recording of the conversation directly to my email box. Google will even attempt to transcribe the spoken conversation into typed words. That technology is still evolving.  

But sometimes you’re stuck with nothing but a pen. No problem. I am now the proud owner of a Pulse™ “smartpen” from a company called Livescribe. It’s still in the box, but according to the brochure the pen holds up to 200 hours of audio recording. And that’s not all. Anything I write with the pen can be uploaded to my computer, and that includes drawings. The top of the pen has a microphone that records sound. The bottom of the pen has an infrared camera that captures everything the pen writes.  

James Bond eat your heart out. The new high tech historian has arrived. 


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on He is editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online.

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