July 13, 2017

Montana History online

by Tammy Troup, MHS Digital Services Manager

History researchers employ a variety of strategies to gather and organize historical evidence. While we’re collecting evidence, we’re thinking about what we’re discovering, developing hypotheses, and ignoring tangents. Finally—if we’re fortunate—we draw evidence-supported conclusions which contribute to the scholarly record.
In this blog post, we’ll outline methods to help researchers conduct online research:

Database Search

You can search many online databases such as the Montana Memory Project (CONTENTdm), Digital Vault (Omeka), Internet Archive, Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), Chronicling America, and MONTANA NEWSPAPERS using Structured Query Language (SQL).  Several online databases (including the databases mentioned above) include a Graphical User Interface (GUI) which structures (organizes) data into specific fields (e.g., Title, Creator/Author, Type, etc.) or which allows multi-faceted (categorical) searching.
For Google-trained online researchers, database research can be frustrating. Simple keyword searches are not effective. Researchers will have more successful results by employing a few SQL-derived techniques:
  • Look for Advanced Search options. Advanced Search provides researchers with an interface to organize and search specific fields and by specific types of searches (exact phrase, any words, all words, none, etc.);
  • Use Boolean operators to focus a search and connect related pieces of information. These operators include AND (all search terms must be present), OR (any of the search terms may be included), and NOT (none of the search terms will be included);
  • Use special characters to expand search results. An asterisk * may be placed in a word such as wom*n  to return results with woman or women.
  • The order of your search commands will determine the order of your results.  You may use parentheticals, which will determine the execution order of the commands you use (e.g., Homesteading AND (Norwegian OR Swedish).
Google Search

Complex websites with thousands of pages, pdf attachments, and links can be difficult for search engines to index and even more difficult for researchers to use efficiently. However, researchers may search the entire site if the understand the functionality which Google builds into the search bar (of course Google also features an Advanced Search option). Another resource, Nancy Blachman’s Google Guide is a well-organized tutorial to help people structure useful queries. A few of these query inputs include the following:
  • Special Characters:
    • - Operator (minus sign) to exclude specific words (same as NOT)
    • * Operator when a wildcard or placeholder is needed or you may use it before a word so search results will return synonyms of the word searched.
    • .. Operator between two years will produce a time range of results
    • “ “ will return results exact phrase results
  • Specific fields:
    • intitle: will return results which include metadata of a specific type (in this case title). This type of search is useful if you know what you are searching for may have specific metadata (e.g., title, creator or author, date, publisher, subject, etc.)
  • site: domain restricts search results to a specific domain
  • filetype: will restrict search results to a specific filetype
History Online

While the Montana Historical Society collects a wealth of information about the history of Montana, there is also a vast amount of data collected and owned by other individuals and organizations. We create billions of gigabytes of information every day.  Meanwhile more and more Montanans create digital information and place it online.  Printing or formally archiving the bulk of this information (image, text, moving image, software, database, etc.) will never occur. As such, historians will need to develop new research methods to identify, find, and collect evidence of the past, and we will need to carefully monitor information policy related to access to these collections.