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SEE ALL SIGNED BOOKS by J. Dennis Robinson click here
Writing History in the 21st Century
historian_with_two_brainsHISTORY MATTERS

The future of the past is looking up. A dizzying array of new software and high-tech gizmos are making it easier for historians like me to search, find and access information, organize and write about the past. As we enter a new decade, those tools are radically changing the way we work. (continued below)

Research can be a plodding and time intensive activity. Tracking down a single fact can take hours, even days or weeks. The stuff the historian is looking for is often stored in vaults, ancient libraries, in museum basements, private collections and back rooms. I once had a reader’s card at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, England where I could fill out a form with a pencil to request practically any book ever written. I could have a medieval illuminated manuscript delivered – slowly – right to my desk at the library where I turned the pages wearing white protective gloves. Now I can see that same document online while sitting at home drinking a Coke.

We are in the middle of a revolutionary transition. Each minute more and more historic documents are being scanned and made available online. Searching through old newspapers used to mean delicately turning brittle brown pages. Then came microfilm that reduced each newspaper page to a tiny photograph on a reel of film. For weeks I’ve been reading microfilm copies of Baltimore newspapers from 1813, They came by snail mail in a box from the Maryland Historical Society. It takes forever to crank them through an enormous viewer. The pages are hard to see. The printouts are hard to read.

I discovered that one of those newspapers, Niles Weekly Register, is also archived online. Every page of every newspaper from 1811 to 1849 is accessible. I can view the actual paper pages and zoom in using my computer. I can download the images and print them on my office printer. Most amazingly – and this is a paradigm shift for researchers – I can turn all the printed text into digital text. That means I can search every word in every newspaper, or simply copy and paste the written words into a word processing document. Advances in OCR (optical character recognition) scanning also make it possible to search untold thousands of other online books. Yesterday I searched a dozen different biographies of Theodore Roosevelt for the word "navy" in less than 10 minutes.

Search and Ye Shall Find

We are all becoming both content readers and content providers. Every blog you post, every YouTube video or Facebook update you upload becomes accessible to the planet in seconds. When I post an article online, readers write back. When I recently wrote about a film by Portsmouth movie producer Louis de Rochemont, a reader in Australia sent me photos of his collection of de Rochemont artifacts. This happens often and it happens fast.

Organizations like the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress have been posting huge numbers of historic photos and documents online since the dawn of the Internet. Recently, local groups are catching up. The Olde Berwick Historical Society (, for example, has become the go-to site for the history of South Berwick, Maine. Initially slow to the Web, the Portsmouth Athenaeum ( has been scanning its heart out. Thousands of local images from its extensive photo collection can be found online. Eventually every document in every archival box there can be located.

This is happening across the nation and around the world. As libraries, museums and private collectors post their stuff, search engines can find it. Besides its lightning fast search capability, Google has also been scanning 10 million books, many of which can be read entirely online or copied in whole or in part on your printer for free. The "Search Inside the Book" feature of allows me to examine the index of millions of books before deciding which ones to buy. has evolved into a phenomenal tool for finding pretty much every book ever published. Click on a book and the wed site will tell you every library that contains a copy – starting with those closest to your zip code. If the library doesn’t have the book I need, I can often download it to my Kindle e-book reader. Tens of thousands of old or classic books are free. If you don’t want to pay for a Kindle, you can download the Kindle software to your computer, laptop, or iPhone. Not long ago I uploaded a history book wirelessly to my Kindle while sitting in an airplane on the runway and read it from Detroit to Manchester. So even while traveling I am researching.


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