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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.



My IT Guy Recommends

Exactly 50 years ago I moved to Bedford, New Hampshire to a new housing development called "Sherwood Forest". As my parents (who still live there) pulled our Ford station wagon into the driveway, I spotted a kid with a green hat carrying a bow-and-arrow. I thought he was Robin Hood, but he was Bill Roy, who lived across the street. My father set up a telephone system powered by a 12-volt drycell that connected my bedroom with Bill’s bedroom across the street.

Today Bill lives in Newburyport, MA, but we are still connected. A former Hewlett-Packard geek, he sends me daily, sometimes hourly messages on how to get the most out of my computer and high-tech devices. He often uses Netmeeting to remotely repair, debug, and update my computer from his house across the border. I pretty much do whatever he says.

So when Bill added a software extension called Readability to my browser, I clicked on the icon. The experimental application cleans all the junk off a web page leaving only the main article and headline in a large, clear, double-spaced type font. All the headers, whizzing graphics, ads and intrusive stuff disappears. With another application, I can save any web page – no matter how long – and file it as a photograph, to be called up later.

Bill has been bugging me to move entirely into the world of Google. I was reluctant at first, but last week we made the change. He migrated 56,000 of my treasured old emails into a free Gmail account. We created labels and filters that have cut my daily email reading and storage time by 75%. In seconds I can find and call up an email I received in the 1990s.

My greatest fear is waking up in the morning to find a dead harddrive with countless hours of work lost. So Bill signed me up for GoogleDocs. This article is being written in "the cloud" on a Google server somewhere. If my computer fails, I can retrieve this article from any computer anywhere. Anyone who has a Google account can "share" my document if I authorize it. That means I can allow other history experts to see and even adapt my documents from their computers. Local historians tend to know a very lot about very tiny topics. The possibility of getting many specialized experts to co-write a highly accurate history is staggering.

If I want to interview a history expert, I give him or her my GoogleVoice free phone number. When the interview is over, Google sends a written transcript of the conversation to my email box. The speech-to-text software isn’t perfect, but its getting better. Google also sends a digital audio copy of the conversation as a backup. By forwarding the number, I can receive the call anywhere when traveling.

Rethnking History Writing

Like other journalists, history writers are bound by the facts. We collect an enormous amount of data, sometimes over years, in our super exhausting search for truth, justice, and the American way. That data piles up. Sometimes a note scribbled on a napkin can hold the critical detail of an unfinished article or a chapter in a book.

"What I really need," I told Bill Roy long ago, is a way to keep every particle of research on a topic in one place. That means taped interviews, web pages, paper notes, Xeroxes, photographs, book references, newspaper clippings – everything."

Bill went wherever geeks go and this week he resurfaced with a software application called Evernote ( He is testing it now, and if it passes muster, I will be using it soon. This software has the ability to read text within a photograph. So if I cake a picture of an historic sign, which I often do, Evernote can not only store the digital photograph, but it can store the words within the photograph in its database. It can do the same for spoken text. It I hold a newspaper clipping up to the camera built into my laptop, it can "read" that too. Evernote can also read handwriting. It can store the data on my computer or in the "cloud" so that I can access it from anywhere.

Evernote simply clusters a lot of new media technologies into one database. It works something like a library card catalog, but this catalog can "see" and "hear" words too. Then like a card catalog, it allows the user to find things, but not just alphabetically as in the olden days. The entire database is searchable in every possible way – by date, by medium, by key words. The larger and richer the database, the more exciting and rewarding the searches will be.

I don’t know if this information management software will work. But if it doesn’t, I know another one will. Bill will find it. The solution to the glut of Information Age is simply to have two brains – one biological and one digital. And no one needs an extra brain more than the harried historian whose head is overfull of facts.

It seems certain that this backup brain, stuffed with history facts, will inevitably get much faster, go deeper, grow smarter and smaller, cost less, and travel everywhere. Soon I will be able to speak to it and it will speak back to me. So as the volume of history content grows, my second brain and I will be able to keep pace – as long as the batteries last.

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is the editor and owner of the award-winning history web site His newest history book for children released this week is entitled Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation.


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