Mashantucket Pequot Museum Library and Archives Blog

Friday, October 17, 2008

Discovering Online Historic Documents

Primary source documents play a key role in researching Native American-colonial interactions in early American history. Todays researchers have the advantage free, immediate access to primary source material. In this blog post, we will explore some of the free primary source repositories available online, and highlight some of the sources most relevant to the study of early Native American history in Southern New England.

Works published in the United States before 1923 are said to be in the public domain and may therefore legally be reproduced, republished and distributed in any form. Fortunately there are many institutions with the resources, either onsite or cooperatively, to not only digitize the original material, but also to provide the platform for entire web-accessible digital libraries. These may be academic institutions (such as University of Nebraska-Lincoln's "Digital Commons"), government agencies ("American Memory" from Library of Congress), cooperative non-profit ventures (Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg), or,as in the case of Google Books, a commercial enterprise adding value to its signature product.

Using the aforementioned digital repositories, I have located some of the primary source documents that are most frequently referenced here at the museum, in relation to early Native-colonial interactions in Southern New England. In doing so, I have found it best to diversify the search across several different sites, as you will encounter gaps in one collection that will be made up for in another. Also, learning the differences in user interfaces across different platforms reveal some to be more useful than others, depending on your personal search habits and expectations. For example, while keyword searching across titles is a common feature to all, Google Books has the advantage of results returned in a general Google search; and the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg texts are described with Library of Congress Subject Headings for those accustomed to searching by these headings in library catalogs.

Another feature to look for and take advantage of is the availability of full text keyword searching. I recently used this feature to find a reference to Cantantowit, a figure in Algonquin folklore, which was remembered to be mentioned in the Roger Williams' A Key Into the Language of America- but where? We found it much more quickly by searching the digital text, than we would have thumbing through pages. Note that some PDF documents are not searchable, so alternatively look for an ASCII text version (ASCII documents can be opened in common desktop applications like Microsoft Word or Notepad).

The following is a list of primary source documents available online which directly support the focus of the Mashantucket Pequot Research Library, selected from a representative sample of different hosting sites. Of course, all of these sites may be used to broaden the scope to other topics in Amercian History, or other fields of study.

Sources consulted in the creation of this article

Stanford University Libraries - CopyRight and Fair Use Overview. Chapter 8: Public Domain

Primary Source Sites on the Internet

Repositories of Primary Sources

How the Open Source Movement Has Changed Education: 10 Success Stories

Internet Archive

Project Gutenberg

Google Books

Digital Commons at University of Nebraska - Lincoln

The Colonial Connecticut Records Project

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