09th May 2017 – Historical research on the Internet

by  Elaine Skehan
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – May 2017)


Historical Research on the Internet
Skerries Historical Society May presentation, ‘Historical Research on the Internet’ by Elaine Skehan, took place on a glorious summer evening with the sun streaming in through the back windows of Keane’s The Bus Bar. Despite the temptation to be outside enjoying the good weather, a good crowd gathered, including well seasoned researchers, perhaps looking for additional tips, and neophytes wondering whether to dip a toe into the rich pool of local history data.

Who would not be tempted by the prospect of undertaking their investigations from the comfort of their own armchair? And there is a wealth of information to be had surfing the sea of data that is the internet. But it can be a minefield for the unwary researcher – you have to be prepared to check each ‘fact’ that you find.

Using a well known 19th century local wreck, Elaine demonstrated that items of data are not the same as cold hard facts. Was the Sarah of Runcorn wrecked in 1873 or 1874? It depends on which site you consult. What were the names of the lifeboat men who lost their lives trying to rescue the crew? Not only do different sites have different ideas on the subject, but even different pages within the same site might not agree. So Albert Anning is mentioned on one page of the RNLI site while on a different page he is Albert Fanning. You have to leave your armchair and go to the grave yard to find that his headstone records him as Albert Anning.

The internet is only as accurate as the people who upload data to it. But let’s not forget that traditional research using secondary sources is full of the same pitfalls. The facts you find in a book are only as reliable as its author. What about primary sources? They can be problematical too. As Morgan Llewelyn remarked in her talk last year, there is no truth, everyone has their own spin. You have only to think of the current administration in the USA to understand that.

But the internet can provide data which is so nearly related to primary sources that for research purposes, there is no difference. Think of the National Archives of Ireland website with its thousands of digitised census records available free of charge to all comers. Not only can you search these records in a myriad ways, but you can view the original census forms filled out in fine copperplate. It’s not quite the same as holding a historical artefact in your hand. But it comes pretty close.

The real lesson of Elaine’s talk was essentially that all researchers have to check their facts – whether they’re garnered from the internet or not. And sometimes you won’t be able to definitively say if the data you have found is true. But when you have compared a variety of sources – online or otherwise – you can decide what is likely to be true.

Report by Oona Roycroft