The Current State of Primary Historical Sources Online

As a vital first step in substantiating and documenting historical details, there can be no substitute for a primary source derived from as close and contemporaneous an observation of a given event as possible. A historian unable to consult authoritative and honest voices from the past can verify little but is left to tinker with tradition and supposition. Until quite recently, the main mode of examining a primary source has been one on one—one scholar face-to-face with one original document in one physical space. Historiography has been slowed by travel expenses, time constraints, vagaries in obtaining permission, and other logistical difficulties standing between a historian and a source, wherever it may be housed. The steps of human progress in the arts and sciences of transcription, publication, photography, photocopying, and microfilming have been precursors to digitization, the latest boost that virtually places a document’s image or essence before the critical eye of the scholar.

The vast majority of primary sources must, of course, still be sought in situ, be they locked away in a private stash or a public institution, at a monastery, in a special collection, a library, an archive, or another locale. We are at the very beginning of an imagined golden age of international online access. Even if some concerted and cooperative push à la Google Book—linking academia, museums, archives, and the corporate world—were applied to documents, letters, manuscripts, and other primary sources, it would still take decades before the numbers and varieties of sources available on your scholarly workstation were to reach a positive tipping point. To complicate matters, a largely invisible struggle now rages between fee-based documents on the one hand and sources with free and open access on the other. This review applies to open-access websites.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 47:1
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