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Why Use Anything Other Than Google For Historical Research?



Why use anything other than Google?

When doing research, you have a lot of choices. In this video we are going to show you when you would want to use library resources like article databases and subject encyclopedias, instead of relying on Google.

Before we talk about library resources, let’s think for a moment about online shopping. You might use Google for some of your online shopping, but if you are like most people, then you do not rely exclusively on it, especially when shopping for something that interests you1. For example, if you are particular about the style of clothing you wear, and you are shopping for a pair of pants, then you probably won’t go to Google Products and type “pants”, because Google indiscriminately searches men’s clothing, women’s clothing, and children’s clothing, discount clothing and designer clothing, snow gear, work clothes, formal-wear, and more. Rather, you will likely begin with an online store you already know about, one that carries the styles you prefer, a store like JD Sports, or Target, or or the Gap.

And if you wanted to browse the newest indie –rock releases, then you might go to a site like Pitchfork, or Parasol Records, but You probably wouldn’t go to Google and type “indie rock”, because the results of that search are a seemingly-random collection of products that have the phrase “indie rock” somewhere in the name.

You might still be wondering, why use specialized sources when I can scrape by with Google?

Well, imagine going to a medical doctor who diagnosed your illness, and prescribed a treatment, based on information found through Google: the doctor enters your symptoms [headache, fever, fatigue] into the search box, and browses the first ten to twenty sites, out of the millions retrieved. Generally, we want to feel certain that our doctors are consulting the most authoritative, reliable, and current information sources. How confident would you be that the first 10 or 20 hits in Google will meet those criteria?

Like doctors, historians base their conclusions on information found through expert sources. When you finish your degree, you should be an expert at finding the most accurate, authoritative, reliable, relevant, and current information.

Here’s an example. If I’m researching the Property Rights of Widows in Medieval Europe, and I search that topic in Google Scholar, I’ll retrieve a jumble of resources, over 23,000. The results aren’t entirely without value, but I don’t feel confident that these are the best sources on my topic—there are too many clearly irrelevant titles, like “Empowering Women: Land and Property Rights in Latin America”, that have ranked higher than titles that seem more relevant, like “Wife and Widow in Medieval England”. A better source would be a specialized database like Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index.

Feminae is a database designed by scholars to support research in medieval women’s studies. In this database, I retrieve fewer results, and all of them appear to be relevant. With a source like Feminae, I will spend less time sifting through irrelevant titles, and I feel fairly confident that the articles retrieved will meet a baseline standard of quality.

An even better source than Feminae might not be a database at all. If I’m just beginning my research, the best source could very well be an encyclopedia article, from an encyclopedia like Women in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia. An encyclopedia article will give a general overview of my topic. Here’s an example from the online version of the Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Encyclopedia articles attempt to summarize the state of knowledge on a topic, and they usually recommend sources for further study. If I want to find the best information on my topic, I’ll have more success if I begin with a specialized resource, like an article database or a subject encyclopedia, than if I rely on the 10 or 20 top sources that Google throws at me.

Even though many encyclopedias have been digitized, it’s unlikely they will appear near the top of my results list in a Google search, because of the way search engines calculate relevance. An expert searcher knows that specialized resources exist, and doesn’t rely on Google to discover them.

So what are these expert resources? Here are some of the hundreds that are available to you online through the library: [While examples of expert resources flash by]: These resources are as different from each other as frying pans are from tennis shoes, and it wouldn’t make sense to search them all simultaneously through Google, even if that were possible. You’ll be a more successful researcher if you learn to use databases designed around the type of information you need. So, if you need articles from American history journals, then it’s best to begin in a database like America: History and Life. And if you need 19th century British newspapers, then you’ll probably have more success if you look in a database like 19th Century British Library Newspapers.

Together with the skills of critical thinking, analysis, and communication that you acquire as a history major, the ability to use expert resources will serve you well whether you go to work in education, publishing, journalism, government, public policy, business, librarianship, or any other field. This is your opportunity to learn about the sources used by experts, and to develop your own research expertise.

For much more information, visit us in the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library.


1. Purushottam Papatla, and Feng (Oliver) Liu, “Google or BizRate? How Search Engines and Comparison Sites Affect Unplanned Choices of Online Retailers,” Journal of Business Research 62, no. 11 (November 2009): 1039-1045.