The Celtic Twilight
The History Channel
Internet Medieval Sourcebook
The Perseus Digital Library
Epic of Gilgamesh
Islam and Islamic Studies
African Studies Center
Internet East Asian Sourcebook
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The number of world history primary sources available via the Internet has expanded at a phenomenal rate, making it difficult for faculty and students to navigate the wealth of information and to quickly evaluate a websites reliability. Just ten years ago, it was impossible to imagine that a student interested in the history of the Indian subcontinent could take a virtual tour through archaeological ruins of the ancient Indus River Valley civilization, or watch speeches by Gandhi and other important figures from modern Indian history, all at the click of a mouse. The website where these resources are found also offers the student pathways to understanding how the peoples of the Indus River Valley may have interacted with other cultures. In this way, the website, Harappa, not only provides a wealth of primary sources, but also a way for the student to see how those sources are part of a larger, more global historical context. Or that same student, moving on to European exploration, might find the website Columbus and the Age of Discovery, which, like Harappa, provides a wealth of primary and secondary sources that attempt to highlight broad, cross–cultural interactions and the global impact of Columbuss voyages. Students who use such websites thus encounter not only excellent primary sources, but also find those sources presented in ways that highlight important trends in world history scholarship.
The Internet offers a rich array of materials for historical research, yet there are also many potential problems when using online primary sources. There are several important questions novice learnersthose with little experience analyzing primary sourcesshould ask when visiting a new website containing primary sources. How authoritative is the website? What is the quality of the translations offered on the website? And to what degree are the sources presented in a cross–cultural context? Of course, not every website will be strong in all three of these areas, but attention to the issues raised in this essay will help students avoid many of the pitfalls of Internet research and will increase the chance of finding excellent primary sources.
Although there are now a host of very sound academic resources on the Internet, there are many more poor–quality resources or websites that present biased or incorrect information. For example, after working through the Harappa website, the student researching ancient India might also want to explore a topic that appears in many textbooksthe Aryan migration or invasion. This subject interests many students because the term Aryan evokes the Nazi racial policies of the 20th century, and they wonder how it could be connected to premodern India. What these students do not realize is that the Aryan migration also currently is the subject of a good deal of controversy among historians. The unwary student, trying to understand the links between 20th century Germany and premodern India, may unwittingly wander into the middle of a heated debate with scholarly as well as non–scholarly participants.
A Google search on Aryan migration includes the website The Myth of the Aryan Invasion in the first screen of results. Instead of providing a set of useful primary sources, this link leads to an essay by David Frawley arguing that the Aryan invasion is a myth propagated by the West. Not surprisingly, many pro–Indian or Hindu organizations have taken up his thesis, although Western scholars and many Indian academics strongly criticize it, often for selective and distorted use of evidence. In fact the article appears within a larger database called FreeIndia.org, whose name hints at its bias. Because Frawleys thesis is presented with conviction and the URL has a different domain name, the unsuspecting student may well accept it without critique and without understanding its place in a highly charged scholarly and political quagmire.
When such materialwhether a primary or secondary sourceis offered up on the Web without adequate context, how can novice learners be expected to identify reliable and unreliable (or at least highly biased) websites? The most common way that novice learners try to sift through the plethora of resources on the Internet is to use search engines, such as Google, Yahoo! and Altavista. Google ranks results based on calculations of a sites reputation, but most search engines offer little or no filtering. For example, a recent Google search on Latin America history primary sources returned more than 1 million hits. A few specialized search engines offer peer–reviewed websites for particular topics, but these are expensive to set up and maintain. Given the large amount of dubious or irrelevant material generated by most search engines, sifting through these sources becomes a minefield for students who have little training in discriminating good sources from bad. Faced with too many choices, many students seize upon the first few links and begin to write essays.
Even seemingly trustworthy websites, such as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, offer documents that may be, according to the websites editors, problematic. For example, the websites description of the process used to transcribe tape recordings from the Presidents meetings makes a rather surprising disclaimer:
Researchers should be cautioned that the transcripts are not always reliable and should never be used without checking them against the actual recordings to assure accuracy. An example of the types of inaccuracies that may appear in the transcripts occurs in the transcript of a conversation between President Johnson and Speaker of the House John McCormack on November 29, 1963. According to the transcript, President Johnson says, Ive got a pack them bastards waiting on me, but the recording reveals that he in fact said, Ive got the Pakistani Ambassador waiting on me. Sometimes the omission of the single word not from a transcript completely reverses the meaning of what was actually stated in a conversation. The Archives staff has prepared Processing Notes to accompany the transcripts only in those cases where the speaker, date, or time listed on the transcript are inaccurate. No notations have been prepared to indicate inaccuracies in the text of the transcripts.
Imagine the implications for analyzing the Johnson presidency. These errors are especially alarming because the LBJ library is a reputable websitepart of the National Archives and Records Administrationand is the type of website students are told to rely upon.
Where the Johnson Library website is a known entitypart of an established historical institution that discloses potential problems in its resourcesmany other popular websites are much trickier, even when reviewed by scholars. A popular guide to Internet resources in history describes The Celtic Twilight as a quirky, non–academic website [that] offers nevertheless online editions of texts... The websites author, Jim Donaldson, discusses his purpose: [T]he web has given me the chance to share some of my ideas and Arthurian information with people around the world. The website, however, offers little information on Donaldsons credentials, making it difficult to evaluate the quality of the materials.
Commercial websites are the fastest–growing domain on the Internet and include some of the most visited historical websites, such as the History Channel. "Enthusiast" sites, such as The Celtic Twilight, straddle the boundary between websites with worthy content, such as primary documents, and those focused on personal opinion. The generally nonacademic and commercial nature of the website should cause one to examine very closely the editions of Arthurian sources found there; it offers a clear lesson in the sort of critical inquiry students should use before accepting such sources at face value. By contrast, commercial websites such as the History Channel, although much less likely to include incorrect information, are also much more likely to avoid controversy altogether and rely on out–of–date and conventional interpretations. When approaching an enthusiast website, one of the most important questions one should ask is who transcribed the materials and from what sources, translations, and editions? How experienced and accurate are the translator or the transcriptionist? Are the sources presented in their entirety or in excerpted forms? If only an excerpt is offered, is the original context maintained?
The many Arthurian websites, of varied quality, offer a clear example of these issues. Students can easily compile information from many sources without careful evaluation. Although The Celtic Twilight offers many medieval sources on the Arthurian saga, it does not discriminate between sources, such as the original and later renditions by Mark Twain (1889) and Thomas Bulfinch (1858). All sources are presented without commentary. Although The Celtic Twilight provides reasonably reliable transcriptions of its translations, inadequate documentation and a lack of context are problematic. For example, Donaldson includes an excerpt from the De Excidio Britanniae by the 6th century English monk St. Gildas, along with an introduction excerpted from the work of the Arthurian specialist John Morris. Although the excerpt from Gildas is a reliable transcription by J. A. Giles, the bibliographical citation for the transcription is incorrect. The Giles translation he claims to have used appeared in 1891, not 1900 as Donaldson asserts.
Although these errors might seem minor to a casual user, they could also be evidence of a more general lack of careful presentation. By contrast Paul Halsall, with his usual precision, not only has the correct date, but the version he offers in the Internet Medieval Sourcebook includes information on the person who originally transcribed the material for the Internet. Donaldsons presentation of the source does not identify the source of the introductory article by John Morris and omits crucial issues relating to the Gildas source. First, there is no discussion Gildass failure to mention an Arthur, or of the scholarly debate about where Gildas was born. There is no discussion of whether the text is a forgery or a compilation of multiple texts, or whether, indeed, there was more than one Gildas responsible for producing the work we now have. Donaldson has altered the original context by omitting important points, thereby creating a new presentation of historical texts. Vortigern Studies, a more academic website, differentiates between scholarly content and personal collection and offers an excellent discussion of these issues.
How, then, can a student navigate through such difficulties? To effectively use the Internet, students need guidance in evaluating websites, including author bias and quality of materials. Because online materials are rarely subjected to the same scrutiny as published materials, many are duplicated without proper citation. A recent search for resources on the Hindu goddess Kali found the exact same text on at least five Internet websites without citation. Who was the author of this text? From what sources was it drawn? Without such citation, it is impossible to know. Hypertext creates another challenge as students select a direction within a particular text. Should they read the text before them to its conclusion, or follow an appealing link, perhaps never to return to the original source? In addition, electronic resources are impermanent. A document available today may be gone tomorrow. Even reputable websites can crash or change Web addresses.
One of the first issues to consider when examining English–language primary sources for world history available on a website is translation. The vast majority of world history sources were not produced originally in English, so someone had to translate them. Although there are now literally millions of useful primary sources on the Web, issues of translation remain acute. Some websites offer original language texts, such as the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, but only those who read cuneiform can use these directly. The Perseus Digital Library, an enormous database of primary sources relevant to classical antiquity, often includes the original language text and English translation. But again, unless the visitor reads Greek or Latin, the originals provide little help. Fortunately, in the case of the Perseus project, the websites creators also provide an extensive scholarly apparatus, including discussions of the finer points of transcription and translation of a given source.
Because English remains the dominant language of the Internet, most websites that feature primary sources in world history, such as Paul Halsalls collection of Internet Sourcebooks, still offer more translations than original–language sources. Halsall uses translations and texts found in the public domain because they are free of copyright restrictions. Many of the translations, therefore, are decades old, and have been improved upon by modern linguistic, archaeological, and historic discoveries and insights. Further, many of these texts are brief excerpts and, although Halsalls website is a professional production, many sources are not accompanied by historical context. Choices made by the editor when excerpting sources can be difficult to discern, and if the quality of the translation is important to the topic of research, one is well advised to consult the library for more recent translations.
Translations also often vary widely based on significant interpretive differences. Lee Huddleston, at the University of North Texas, has compiled an admirable list of available translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh on the Web that illustrates this issue. Huddlestons website links to 17 complete translations, but three list no translator and two are unreliable. Some versions include the twelfth tablet, which purports to tell the death of Enkidu, while others do not. The introduction to Maureen Kovacss translation, for example, states that The translator chose to eliminate Tablet XII for personal reasons and offers no further explanation. One website has no fewer than four versions of the flood found in various tablets.
In providing his own summary of the Epic, Huddleston notes that his version departs from the traditional practice of equating one tablet with one chapter. Scholars are uncertain how to piece together the fragments of the tablets found in Nineveh, but students will have trouble learning more about this issue online. This debate leads to widely varying translations, some of which contain alternate endings with profound implications for interpretations of the Epic and Mesopotamian culture. Only two of the versions listed on Huddlestons website provide annotations and scholarly footnotes. One of these versions, with notes, was a poetic translation of the text. Students reading this text entirely online, then, will not access informative notes often available in printed versions.
For all these reasons, students who encounter primary sources from world history in translation need to ask probing questions about transcription and translation. Websites that do not offer substantial disclosure should be used with caution or avoided.
An important theme in recent world history scholarship is the interaction between cultures over time, rather than in isolation from one another. Websites and the primary sources they offer can be very useful when studying the links between cultures, especially the dissemination of ideas from one culture to another. Electronic texts offer powerful search capabilities unavailable in printed text. Websites such as the Bible Gateway contain sophisticated search engines that generate lists of passages matching search criteria. Websites that contain electronic texts but no search engine can also be searched using the find in page function of any web browser. The result is a greater ability to compare and contrast uses of the same phrase in different cultures.
For example, it is very instructive to compare the use of the phrase eye for eye in the Torah and in the Code of Hammurabi. One might study the role of women in Hebrew and Mesopotamian society through this technique and compare it to the treatment of women in the Quran by completing a word/passage search through the Noble Quran. Then one could compare the treatment of women in the Quran with the status of women in various areas of the modern Islamic world through the Islamic Studies page at the University of Georgia, thus bringing the discussion into a more global arena. This kind of comparison allows students to explore how cultures have interacted in various periods rather than studying cultures serially or in isolation.
World historians are asserting the importance of the study of global, cross–cultural, and regional interactions as a separate field of study. They argue for a more comparative, integrative approach in which important trends in global history are illuminated, including the migration of peoples, trade, family, religion, and law. World historians are also examining common words such as world and progress, often used within an ethnocentric and, in particular, European, context. Although many textbooks purport to deal with world history, few depart from a serial, chronologically driven analysis of separate cultures, or incorporate comparative discussions that synthesize material from diverse cultures and highlight world trends. Few achieve a truly proportionate balance between European and non–European sources, and even this dichotomy betrays part of the problem.
Not surprisingly, these issues have only begun to find their way into world history primary–source websites. Although there are many excellent websites devoted to specific cultures or issues, few incorporate sources or essays that integrate material and provide insight into regional or global interactions. For example, Georgetown Labyrinth is one of the best websites for medieval studies on the Internet, but it organizes sources by culture, language of text, or author. Although the website offers topical areas, such as resources on medieval women, there are no comparative treatments of medieval European women with the women of other cultures. Many excellent websites, such as Diotima, which contains materials for the study of women in the ancient world, have similar approaches. Although Diotima offers a wonderful array of peer–reviewed resources on women in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, it provides no primary sources or essays on women in Ancient China or other Asian cultures. Lyn Reeses Women in World History Curriculum attempts to address this deficiency, but it contains only a few primary–source excerpts and does not offer substantive, comparative treatment of the status and rights of women in regional or global contexts, looking instead at various figures within their own cultures and times. None of these websites claim to offer a global perspective; they are, instead, a reflection of the evolving state of world history scholarship. But it is important for students to know that these websites have not yet caught up with that evolution.
Websites that emphasize non–European materials often focus on a single region or culture, and so, when using these websites, the student will need to construct his or her own connections by considering how a source presented on one website might be linked to or contrasted with those found on another website. For example, the African Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania organizes many of its resources into country–specific pages. A link to East African resources does not provide many materials that link the countries within this geographical region. Similarly, the page from the Asian Studies database on Chinese history lists a number of resources on Chinese schools of thought. Among those are a page on the Hundred Schools of Thought, which discusses primarily Confucianism and Taoism in China. This page links to a larger discussion, Su Tzus Chinese Philosophy. In both cases, the primary sources presented focus on ancient sources, and in neither case do the authors attempt to trace the influence of Confucianism on other areas, such as Japan. By contrast, Halsalls Internet East Asian Sourcebook does develop cross–regional comparisons of the spread of Asian religions, and more such websites are needed. Halsall organizes the website thematically, and provides both primary and secondary sources as well as multimedia materials. Halsalls example of cross–regional comparisons can be re–created by a user of the other websites just mentioned by searching these websites for linkages the websites authors do not make explicit, but stuents new to these topoics need guidance in identifying useful connections and themes.
Cross–cultural interactions are often at the heart of historic issues, and there are frequently multiple, conflicting accounts of various events. The Crusades are a popular topic, and numerous websites discuss various aspects, from military orders, such as the Templars, to Crusader architecture. Although many new textbooks have begun to unravel the complex web of cultural interactions between Europe and the Islamic and Byzantine worlds, few websites have incorporated thematic, global, or regional analysis. The discussion on the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies website, for example, approaches the Crusades in the traditional wayfrom a predominantly European perspective. A few primary sources are included, but none of these are Islamic sources. Similarly, although Georgetown Labyrinth links to a discussion of the Crusades and their impact on women on its list of topics related to medieval women, it does not include this topic on its main Crusades page, thereby relegating thematic treatments to the sidelines. Further, the editors fail to compare European women during the Crusades to their counterparts in the Byzantine and Islamic worlds.
Arab–Islamic history contains a good selection of Islamic accounts of the Crusades, but does little to integrate Islamic and European accounts, not to mention Byzantine perspectives. As a rare example of how this can work, Paul Halsalls Internet Sourcebook websites provide cross–cultural accounts of events such as the Crusades. Halsall has developed Byzantine, Islamic, and Medieval Sourcebooks (among others), and in the Medieval Sourcebook section on the Crusades, he provides a dazzling array of sources from the European, Byzantine, and Islamic perspectives. He provides Soloman bar Samsons chronicle of the Crusaders in Mainz, a Jewish perspective, as well as five cross–cultural accounts of Peter the Hermits crusade, and several selections from the account of Usmah Ibn Munqidh, among other resources. Halsall is always clear on the sources of his electronic transcriptions and their translators, and he offers discussions of issues germane to their interpretation as well as bibliographies for further research.
As the preceding examples make clear, the Web offers world history students many possibilities for expanding their understanding of the complex world of the past. In addition, the flexibility of the Web when it comes to linking diverse sources across both geographic and temporal boundaries creates the opportunity for weaving these sources together into new and increasingly sophisticated interpretative frameworks. At the same time, the very freedom of the Web when it comes to making primary sources from the past available online also introduces potential problemsespecially problems of authority and translation. As real as these problems are, once recognized, they can be addressed successfully. So long as the user is careful to consider the websites authority, the quality of its translations, and its success in presenting its resources in a broader context, primary sources mined from those sites can be used in new and creative ways. And, as more sources become available, along with new tools for navigating and working with those sources, the Web will become an even richer environment for research in world history. In the years to come we can expect even greater reliance by history teachers and students on online resources. Already historians are creating guidelines and criteria for subjecting Internet materials to the rigorous standards of peer review, and the more these standards are applied by website authors, the more students of world history will find creative ways to integrate isolated and disparate sources on the Web to forge a more truly global approach to their studies.
Deborah Vess, Ph.D.
Professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies
Georgia College & State University
Carnegie Scholar, 1999–2000
1Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations and Meetings: Recordings of Telephone Conversations. Lyndon Baines Johnson Library. October 11, 1996.
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2Dennis A. Trinkle. The History Highway 2000: A Guide to Internet Resources. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000, 47.
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3About Celtic Twilight. Jim Donaldson.
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4The Epic of Gilgamesh. Maureen Gallery Kovacs, trans.,
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5There are numerous electronic texts of the Code on the web, as can be seen from my incomplete list in my World Civilization Virtual Librarys page on Mesopotamia at http://www.faculty.de.gcsu.edu/~dvess/meso.htm.
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6One of the best recent texts that explores the cross–cultural interactions in the Crusades is The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. Carole Hillenbrand, New York: Routledge, 2000.
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