History and the World-Wide Web of the 1990s



In the 1990s, Hanover College was a pioneer in making primary sources available online. Before that time, history professors who wanted their students to work with primary sources usually assigned a published "reader" alongside a more narrative textbook. Once Hanover and other colleges and libraries began making primary sources available online, professors had more flexibility in what they could assign to their students, and undergraduate students had more choice in the kinds of research they could do.

One early advocate of using digitized primary sources in undergraduate history courses was Sue C. Patrick, of the University of Wisconsin - Barron County. In 1999, she reported to the American Historical Association the results of her experiments in using online documents to teach history. One of her assignments was to ask her students to analyze a specified primary source in American history. She intentionally chose a source for which the textbook summary was misleading (hoping that her students would see the differences between primary and tertiary sources). Unfortunately, the document was difficult to read, with complex prose and unfamiliar terms.

A majority of students simply gave up rather than try to figure it out. Some of those seemed to think that the document was a secondary source, a site or article written after the fact. Perhaps 1/4 of the students were able to puzzle out what every part of the act said and then write a good paper comparing the act to the book. . . . Only one-third concluded that the textbook was somewhat misleading in its description, which is what I had hoped for since it would show clearly that they understood the difference between fact and interpretation.

For another class, she asked the students to consider several digitized primary documents and compare them with their textbook description of the time when they were written.

Students received a clear definition of absolutism and a significant amount of information about [it] from the textbook and class discussion. It was therefore fairly easy for them to look at documents . . . understand where they fit into the textbook's description of events. Most students did well with the content of this paper, showing a firm understanding of absolutism in France and of the difference between primary and secondary sources. The biggest [problem was] that they needed more practice in understanding how to construct an argument using historical evidence.

Despite some problems with the assignments,

I believe the use of technology was important. In general, students printed out the documents from the web and used the printed versions to do their papers. Since our campus does not charge students a per-page fee for use of printers in the computer labs, I could have saved the campus a lot of money if I had printed one copy and had it copied on two sides of a page for all the students. However, I don't think that approach is a good one for two reasons. First, a few students have never used the Internet before. Such knowledge is becoming increasingly important for advancement in American society and business. Any assignment that forces students to use the Internet has value for that reason. Second, students at smaller campuses may not have access to large numbers of documents in print form. The Internet makes available far more documents than could be put into any reader. Third, familiarizing students with some sites that have documents will help them to recognize primary versus secondary sources in electronic formats. I believe that skill becomes even more vital as more people turn to the web as a resource.

In advising other historians about how to incorporate digitized texts into their teaching, she identified ten useful websites, and Hanover's site was one of the ten. In her review of Hanover's site, she listed some of the documents that Hanover students and faculty had prepared for the web, and she also noted that Hanover provided a Internet Archive of Texts and Documents, a page that "contains links to considerably more documents" which were "archived on other computers."

In 2005, another historian called Hanover's digitized offerings "the digital equivalent of a visit to a dusty but intriguing study with an assortment of old books, and, here and there, a remarkably complete collection on a single topic." "Simply to make the readings available to a wide audience" was Hanover's "admirable" goal, she reported.

The Internet Archives' "Wayback Machine" has archived the 1996 version of the Hanover College history department's homepage. To get a sense of how the website had changed over time, compare the 1996 version with the current version.



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