Impact of the Web on Historical Research

Discuss how the Web impacts the way you do historical research. How does it change the way you think about sources? Are there qualitative differences between using digital archives and more traditional analog sources?  Why or why not?


Sorry, but I’m first compelled to discuss how the Web impacts the way I do legal research. While Web-based research has dramatically changed the way lawyers conduct research, what I find interesting is that the previous book-based approach to legal research oddly seemed to anticipate, and eventually to beg for, web-based tools.

Prior to the 1990s, and to my surprise starting in the 1880s and 1890s, once a lawyer had identified the legal issues arising from a fact situation, the typical legal research project involved a trip to a law library. Were it not for advances in the late 19th century, the lawyer would have been faced a needle-in-a-haystack challenge in trying to find judicial decisions that supported his position. But his task was substantially lightened by the introduction of the National Reporter System, the West Digest and Shepard’s Citations.

The National Reporter System consisted (and still does) of bound volumes of judicial decisions, separated by federal versus state courts, by region and by state. But the key (pun to become apparent) to the system comes from the West Digests, which involve an elaborate classification system, with refined sub-categories, eventually getting to “topics and key numbers.” As a result, a lawyer could approach his research in several ways. If he had identified a useful judicial decision, he could go to the topic and key numbers that appear just before the decision itself, and then he could go to the Digests, to the particular key numbers he had identified, and find other court decisions that addressed the same topic and key number. Or he could start with the digests, look for the topic and key numbers that address his issue, and locate relevant cases.

But the fun didn’t stop there. Using Shepard’s Citations, the lawyer could easily identify the history of any case (lower court opinions, this opinion, appellate opinion), which would tell him whether this opinion had been upheld or overturned. Of even more use, “shepardizing” (yes, that’s what lawyers say!) the case would identify for him all instances in which this decision had subsequently been cited, in other court cases, in law review articles and in legal treatises. Going down that path would help him either refine or expand the scope of his research.

In one sense, the web-based research tools developed in the 1990s – chief among them, Westlaw and LexisNexis – “just” applied web technology to the book-based research methodology. But in a more practical sense, this advance revolutionized legal research and as a result, also revolutionized the approach taken to the practice of law by most lawyers.

Here are links to helpful explanations of the West Key Number System and of Shepard’s Citations as they have evolved from the historical classification and case citation systems to application on the web.

Turning to historical research, I would mention researching newspapers as a way to contrast available methods. Working on an earlier project, I researched the Hartford Courant online, the Hartford Times on microfiche, and the New Haven Register in the original hard copy, by special request at Yale’s Beinecke Library.

  • The relative advantages were:
    • online – speed;
    • microfiche – context; and
    • hard copy – the original look and feel, in addition to context.
  • The relative disadvantages were:
    • online – lack of context, reliance on search terms;
    • microfiche – slow and monotonous; and
    • hard copy – time and effort

Confession: though I am aware of the pluses and minuses, including the qualitative drawback of missing something as a result of the limitations of search terms, my clear preference is for digital research. I am impatient and tend to want to “get-r-done.” This may not be a valid defense, but based upon my limited exposure to historical research, it’s my impression that whatever drawbacks there may be to web-based research have a greater risk of negatively impacting the work product of a Public History project than to an academic paper. I could be totally off base in assuming this. In any event, I am continually aware that there are limitations to each method. Ideally, a research project would involve both traditional and web-based research, with the goal of capitalizing on the advantages of each, while at the same time minimizing the impact of their disadvantages.

My wish list for historical research would be for someone to develop a form of Shepard’s Citations for his historical books and articles. The opportunity to instantly be able to identify how others have utilized a journal article I’m working with would be extremely helpful. I would love to hear that there is such a tool that I haven’t identified.





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