arrows in the web-void
Version 00.01, 1 July 2004
Searching the Internet For Historical Information
by Stevieo

first published at searchlores in July 2004

Part of the searching essays & of the evaluating results sections.

Searching the Internet For Historical Information 

Searching the Internet For Historical Information

Abstract: Historical information can be hard to find on the internet. This paper starts by listing a few of these difficulties. The rest is a live experiment where I try to figure out how to do historical research using the internet. I hope to provide some tips to help others do research on the internet. I also hope anyone reading this will offer their ideas and solutions. Understand that my skills, both in searching and evaluating, are quite inadequate for the task, so what I present here is at best a beginning. Your suggestions are welcome.

History is Hard Work

Asking questions about history can be a lot of work. Here's how Sir James George Frazer opened his preface to the abridged edition of The Golden Bough.

The primary aim of this book is to explain the remarkable rule which regulated the succession to the priesthood of Diana at Aricia. When I first set myself to solve the problem more than thirty years ago, I thought that the soluton could be propounded very briefly, but I soon found that to render it probable or even intelligible it was necessary to discuss certain more general questions, some of which had hardly been broached before. In successive editions, the enquiry has branched out in more and more directions, until the two volumes of the original work have expanded into twelve.

The task of gathering and evaluating information can be a lifelong project, even for a seemingly simple question. Here are just a few of the difficulties.

For primary written material

You might need background knowledge to locate resources.
You almost always need considerable background knowledge to evaluate resources.
Written primary sources may be badly damaged.
The writing, language, or both might not yet be deciphered or interpreted.
The writing, language, or both may suffer from multiple interpretations.
The language may not be well understood, either in general, or by the seeker.
The culture may lack relevant literary material, even if it is otherwise rich on written material.
The material might not be available. Much of what has been translated has not been published.
Even when written primary material is adequately translated, the meaning or applicability can evade interpretation.
It is often difficult to evaluate bias in written material without examining multiple sources, which are often not avalable.
The authenticity of primary material is not always a given.
And finally, the information you seek may never have been written, let alone discovered.

For non written material

Difficulties in interpretation are only compounded with non-written artifacts.
The context in which certain artifacts are used is important, and often this is not understood.
An artifact found outside its natural context may lead to false interpretations.
Depictions appearing on artifacts provide multiple contexts: for the artifact, depiction, and the combination.
Access to artifacts is often limited to help preserve the artifacts or for cultural reasons. Only those with appropriate credentials and clout can gain access, and even then, access is often severely restricted.
Artifacts that are avalable are scattered across the globe in museums. Often only a few artifacts are on display, the rest hidden away in the museum's storage rooms.

Secondary sources add more difficulties

Specialized information is often difficult to locate, use, and evaluate.
Detailed historical information is of limited use, so resources can be hard to find, even off the internet.
The information may be lying in some dusty old thesis library, or a storage room where you'll never learn about it.
You may be asking a question that hasn't been answered, or hasn't been answered satisfactorily.
Secondary sources can be biased
Selection of material (inclusion, rejection) is a judgement call, which is often biased.
The writer's choice of method (school of throught) will produce a particular bias.
Political, professional, religious, and other types of personal bias can reflect on the material.
The writer may deliberately attempt to mislead.
Some schools of thought believe that bias is an inherent part of what historians do. They go so far as to say that history is the study of historians.
The sources and methods used can be shoddy.

Researching on the internet adds some difficulties, but also solves a few problems.

Primary materials are not available on the internet, but copies and photographs of such material may be available.
Raw archaeological field data is being made available on the internet by several current archaeological projects as the digs progress.
Museums are slowly beginning to publish virtual exhibits to display their materials in pictures and multimedia panoramas. These exhibits typically include information panels, sometimes beyond what is available in the museum itself.
Museums are still stuffy old institutions that guard their possessions. Most do not allow cameras in the museum, nor do they allow visitors to view the vast amount of materials in the store rooms. They are hesitant to freely publish pictures of their material or make copies of textual material available. This is changing slowly, as mentioned above.

Finally, there are some general rules about information that apply, particularly for the internet.

The vast majority of information on the internet consists of a simple overview of the subject. As simplifications, they are often misleading.
The caveat about bias in secondary sources applies especially on the internet where misrepresentation and deceipt are the rule, not the exception.
Unless you are an experienced historian thoroughly familiar with the subject matter, you will have difficutly evaluating any material you find.
The validity of anything you find on the internet is suspect. The cost of publishing on the internet is very low. Traditional constraints imposed by publishing firms do not apply. This means there is no editorial vetting, authority, quality, or any other measure to restrict the free flow of unadulterated garbage. Verify everything independent of the internet, if at all possible.

A Simple Beginning

The naive approach to searching is to put some relevant words or phrases into a search engine and look through the first few results for a quick answer. This is sometimes successful. It is a valid approach when you need a simple overview, need to verify a simple fact, or when you know where something is but don't know the URL.

It is also successful when the search engine is tuned to provide the kind of answer you're looking for. For example, the rage today is to rank web sites by popularity. If you're looking for one of the most popular sites for a given subject, this naive approach is likely to be successful.

For this experiment, I chose a random sentence from a random book on history. The book is the 1964 Norton Library Press edition of the 1952 second edition of A History of Greek Religion by Martin P. Nilsson, translated at some point from Swedish to English by F. J. Fielden. I opened to a random page (p 187), and near the top found the following sentence:

The prohibition against pouring libations with unwashed hands is as old as Homer.

Using the naive approach, I pick out the important words and type the following query into google's query window.

"unwashed hands" libations homer

In reponse, google returns exactly one link to a pdf file entitled Homer: The Simile as Textual Stratagem. I open the document in acroread, hit Ctrl-F, type in unwashed, and find that the pdf contains the word "unwashed" exactly once. It is the Greek original with English translation of The Iliad book 6, lines 226-8.

I fear to pour out the gleaming wine to Zeus with unwashed hands; nor is it permissible to pray to the son of Kronos who is shrouded in the clouds when spattered with blood and gore.

Was this search successful? It may seem so, but it fails on a number of counts. The most important problem is that I never defined what I wanted to find, so there's no way to determine whether or not this answers the question.

What Were We Searching For?

Let's take another look at that quote. This time I'll pretend I'm reading it for the first time and that something about it caught my interest.

The prohibition against pouring libations with unwashed hands is as old as Homer.

Now, that's a bold statement, even for someone as respected as Mr. Nilsson. There's no footnote for this sentence. The context is purification rites and taboos, but that tells me all of nothing. For all I know, Mr. Nilsson made this up. Now this is something specific I want to find out.

Is it true that this prohibition is as old as Homer?

We already did the search. We'll evaluate those same results to see if this was a successful search to the new question.

Do the results answer the question? That depends on what you already know. The first translated sentence may seem to answer the question, but it's not entirely clear whether or not this merely applies to hands drenched in blood. If you look at several translations, or if you merely read that pdf document, you also know that there's a translation question here. What we did learn is that in this particular case someone adamantly refused to pour libations to Zeus while his hands were drenched in blood. If you read the book, you know that this is Hector, and that he had just returned from battle, and his hands were drenched in human blood. So this doesn't prove that there was a general prohibition against pouring libations with unwashed hands. All it proves is that Hector adamantly refused to pour libations to Zeus while his hands were drenched in human blood.

If you merely read Homer, you'll have a hard time proving that there is such a prohibition without understanding a few things about Ancient Greece. This is my second rule for primary sources. You almost always need considerable background knowledge to evaluate primary sources. Certainly you cannot evaluate them efficiently without such knowledge.

If you read The Iliad carefully you might notice that people only wash their hands before pouring libations to a god. You will not read about anyone washing their hands before pouring libations to the dead, which they also did. If you want an explicit statement of the prohibition, you can find it in Hesiod [Works and Days II 724-6]. But Hesiod lived after Homer, so this too proves nothing. But at this point, we have enough information to make a convincing argument.

In every case in The Iliad, people wash their hands before pouring libations to a god. It is unlikely that Homer made this up and then went through the trouble of dragging out the servants with their water and napkins along with the wine every time the meal ended. (In one case the washing is not explicitly mentioned, but it is implied because the servants would not forget.) Hector's adamant stance makes it almost certain that Homer knew of a prohibition in some form. We can judge its precise form from the actions of Homer's characters. They washed their hands before pouring libations to a god, but did not wash before pouring to the (newly) dead. (I'll spare the details.) The explicit statement by Hesiod verifies that precisely such a prohibition did exist, if after Homer's time. This is precisely the form the prohibition took centuries later. Ritual is one of the most conservative of human activities. It is unthinkable that Homer could describe a prohibition perfectly if it did not already exist in his day. The big loophole is that the Greeks treated the works of Homer and Hesiod at face value. Homer by merely mentioning it, could be responsible for such a prohibition being started later. But it is unlikely that this could have happened so soon as to be mentioned by Hesiod. This proof is fairly solid.

Evaluating the Results

Using the simplest approach to searching got me a single search result that contained enough information for me to solve most of the problem. I also needed to scan the actual primary source, The Iliad, albeit in translation, and look up the book and line numbers in Hesiod's Works and Days where I knew beforehand the prohibition could be found. I knew enough of the subject to do the rest. You may have needed to do more work.

If you're not familiar with Ancient Greece, you need to first learn that Hesiod explicitly mentions the prohibition, or at least that this prohibition existed later. This could take some time, but is not a difficult problem. You might also have missed the extra point about not washing before pouring libations to the dead, a point that helps strengthen the argument. This is also extra work, but you'd have to be pretty sharp to catch it. In any case, it's not strictly necessary. If you're not familiar with history at all, you probably couldn't constuct a proof. You might even be unconvinced of this proof or any other that falls short of irrefutable logic, causing you to expend untold extra work looking for unnecessary and difficult material, and probably failing in the end.

This is exactly how a search should work.

Go back to the first two rules about primary sources.

You might need background knowledge to locate resources.
You almost always need considerable background knowledge to evaluate resources.
If you don't have the background, then you need to do some work to acquire it. I'd add that you tend to search for things that are near your level of knowledge and your subjects of interest. It's highly unlikely that anyone would search for information about a 2800 year old prohibition without some previous exposure to the subject. If you did find the need, you might be better off finding someone to help.

But we need to answer the bottom line question. Was this search successful? No doubt it solved the problem for me. So for me, this was a successful search. For someone without the proper background, it is a miserable failure in more ways than I can count.

Back to the Drawing Board

Preparing to Search

If you don't know what it is you're looking for, that's what you'll find. That is, you just don't know what you'll find. So before you begin a search, you need to define precisely what it is you want to find.

descriptive and functional descriptions
try representing the semantic or logical content rather than the visual description
try both general and topic-specific terminology
not everyone uses the same terms
there are several standard sets of terms
terms change depending on the historical time period and geographical location

convert graphical information to textual
If you don't have a particular image in mind, visualize an image and describe the possible incarnations

describe the place that the depiction might appear
for artifacts this means
on what types of artifacts can this be depicted?
where would each of these items be found? used? (then and today)

sites--decribe the site
type of site or place
which might have it?
search all if necessary, but try to limit
the search to museums * related places
or add a museum keyword
or use a directory
books that might describe:
the artifacts
the depictions in general
related discussion (e.g. the acts)

Describe the use of the thing depicted
cult practise

Describe the renditions of the image
picture books
web sites
museum online displays
local tourist sites

decribe the image appearance generically
what is happening in the image
what things appear in the image
what specific things appear

keywords to related things
uses of the image (e.g. cult use of depictions)

get the right time and geography frame
look for places/times that are related, derivations, etc.
also look for similar decpictions/uses in other places.
someone may have studies the issue on a larger (perhaps worldwide) scale

look for open directories (see also the webbit & rabbits section)
"index +of"
"parent directory" // iis
-filetype:htm -filetype:html //because we're looking for directories
intitle:"index +of" -filetype:htm -filetype:html parent-directory

look up or read about the history of the thing
the thing/act depicted
history of depictions of this act in different art forms

amazon's full test might have pictures from books (even picture books)

Frazer, Sir James George, Golden Bough, The, one volume abridged edition, 10th printing, ppb, 1963, Collier/Macmillan Publishing Company

Petit image

(c) 3rd Millennium: [fravia+], all rights reserved, reversed, revealed and reviled