8 Online Resources for Historical Research

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Original photo by Greg Lloyd 1969, used with permission. Via Wikimedia Commons


The beauty of doing historical research in the Digital Age is that so much can be carried out from the comfort of your couch, local coffee shop or anywhere with reasonably speedy Wi-Fi. Of course, there’s much to be said for libraries, museums and a trip to your novel’s locale, but because so much can be accomplished from home that the Internet should be your first stop. Here are eight tools to get you up and running.

1. American Memory

The staggering breadth of multimedia available in these collections from the Library of Congress—more than 9 million digitized items—seeks to document the quintessential American experience through text, images, audio and video. Thankfully for researchers, these vast contents are organized by themes based on subject matter and format for more straightforward navigation. Learn what it was like to administer communion in 1550 from a mid-16th century handbook for priests, gain a deeper understanding of Civil War battle strategy with an 1863 map of Gettysburg, or inform your own story of a Mad Men-style ad firm with a Coca Cola commercial from the 1960s. Narrow your search to specific sections or explore the entire site at once, but either way you’ll walk away with something new and unexpected.

2. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940

The manuscripts collection from American Life Histories is another invaluable resource from the Library of Congress, distinct from American Memory. From 1936 to 1940, the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers’ Project, a jobs program that was part of the New Deal, compiled and transcribed more than 2,900 written life histories. Ranging from 2,000 to 15,000 words, these manuscripts document the lives of Americans living at the turn of the century, through the Technological Revolution, World War I and the Great Depression. These records include valuable details that could inform your writing, such as physical appearance, education, income, occupation, political views, religious perspective and more.

3. Archive Grid

At the beginning of your research, when you’re looking for tools that cover a very broad swath of material, Archive Grid will be among your first stops. It’s a catalog of more than 2 million primary and secondary source materials from institutions around the world, from Yale to the Bibliotheek Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands. Searchable by keyword, you can inform your character’s career by looking up an occupation such as fireman to see an occupation analysis of “The Fireman in Cincinnati” (1930), or better depict the squalor of Parisian peasants in 1790 with a little help from “Economic conditions in Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution.” Not all archival material is openly accessible—some may requiring reaching out to an institution for permission—but the massive collection still makes it an excellent device for homing in on the exact information you seek.

4. David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

The David Rumsey collection includes more than 48,000 historical maps and images that are available for you to browse and consume for free online. Though the majority of available maps focus on rare 18th- and 19th-century maps from North America and South America, historic maps of Europe, Asia and Africa are also available. This collection is digitized at an incredibly high resolution, making it easy collect details by zooming in. Use an 1857 street map of Chicago to understand the anatomy of the city before the Great Chicago Fire, or an 1834 atlas of Scotland with hand-colored county boundaries to see whether your character’s village was in Forfarshire or Kincardineshire.

5. Feeding America: The Historic American Cookbook Project

There is a wealth of online sources where you can plunder photos, manuscripts and other old ephemera, but the Feeding America collection from Michigan State University provides you the unique opportunity to accurately portray your character’s diet. The Historic American Cookbook Project includes full-text, searchable transcriptions of cookbooks dating as far back as the 1700s. Use the Manual for Army Cooks (1896) to describe an authentic meal of salt codfish hash for a wary group of Union soldiers, or a description of Johnny Cake or Indian Slap Jacks from American Cookery (1798) to realistically chronicle a meal at the table of Thomas and Martha Jefferson. In addition to the awesome archive of cookbooks, the site additionally includes a glossary of historic cooking terms, as well as images of old cooking utensils such as a bread grater and a gourd dipper.

6. Google Books

Provided by Google, the search engine monolith, Google Books offers a gateway to more than 30 million digitally scanned books, most of which are no longer in print or commercially available. As an additional feature, every digitized book has searchable text using optical character recognition, making it easier to track down the exact piece of information you’re looking for. While there are some books that are restricted to only an abstract or preview, full text of those in the public domain are available to download for free. Because this archive is so enormous, you’re bound to find background information on just about any subject you can imagine, from the Influence of Judaism on the Protestant Reformation to Bogs, Baths and Basins: The Story of Domestic Sanitation.

7. Measuring Worth

Say you’re writing a novel about an oil magnate at the turn of the 20th century. For background, you read up on John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company, and stumble across the fact that he was worth about $200 million in 1902. This sounds like a lot, but you can’t fully understand the immensity of this number without comparing it to today’s standards. That’s where Measuring Worth comes in: an online tool that allows you to determine “historical worth.” By plugging in the numbers, we can see that Rockefeller was worth about $34.6 billion in today’s standards, a detail that can’t help but inform your character, granting him the eccentricities of the uber-wealthy. Use Measuring Worth to size up everything from how George Washington’s salary compares to President Obama’s, to how much a car in 1925 would cost you in today’s dollars. Calculating worth is not something that naturally comes to mind when trying to write a historically accurate work of fiction, but is an element both compelling and critical to consider when conducting research.

8. New York Public Library Digital Collections

Put the coveted collections of the NYPL, the second largest public library in the US next to the Library of Congress, at your fingertips without the hassle of navigating busy Manhattan streets or trying to find a cheap hotel room in Midtown. Perhaps the most useful (and fascinating) feature on the website is the Digital Gallery. The NYPL Digital Gallery is a collection of more than 800,000 images, including historical maps and photographs, manuscripts, vintage posters and rare prints. Take a peak at the collection “Customs and Costume” to see how a family of Russians might’ve dressed in 1862, or explore “The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts” to see what details might’ve adorned a program from the Metropolitan Opera House in 1909.

Tyler Moss is a Cincinnati-based journalist, freelancer and fiction writer, as well as online editor of Family Tree Magazine, operated by F+W, parent company of WD.

Original photo by Greg Lloyd 1969, used with permission. Via Wikimedia Commons

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