Using Internet Resources for Researching Religious History: the Dominican Order in Medieval Spain as Case Study
By Rita Ríos de la Llave
Bridging the gaps : sources, methodology and approaches to religion in History, edited by Joaquim Carvalho (Pisa University Press, 2008)
Abstract: This chapter examines the use of Internet resources for historical research, using the history of the Dominican Order in Medieval Spain as a case study. Several free Spanish online resources are presented, which are useful not only for historians specialising in religious history but for all historians generally. In my case, I have used them for locating archives and libraries, primary sources and bibliographical references, some of which may be available in full-text digital format. The difficulties encountered during this research are discussed, as are some methodological questions. I also suggest some ways of improving the digitalization process, always with the historian in mind. Finally, I reflect on the role of the Internet as a primary source.
The Internet is of vital importance for the historian. However, it also has certain shortcomings, such as a lack of suitable search engines, a shortage of digitalized sources and inadequate information about the process involved in registration and digitalization. The Internet is also viewed by researchers with a certain amount of distrust as a medium for the publication of their scientific work, and there is a general lack of awareness about the best way to preserve Internet content. I have not attempted to solve these problems in this short chapter; rather, I present them as matters to be reflected on by computer experts and historians.
Introduction: The Internet has become a very important tool for historians. It allows us to locate easily the main libraries, archives and centres where historical sources and documentary collections are kept, and electronic access to the catalogues of these institutions greatly simplifies the search for bibliography and sources. It also offers direct access to books, articles, papers, encyclopaedias, dictionaries, atlases, statistical sources, documents, photographs, videos and other materials useful for historical research. For example, Alexandra Smith, in her contribution to this volume, describes in detail the utility of different computer resources (including the NASA website) for researching issues about calendars, while Dimitar Grigorov’s chapter shows how it is possible to link Internet sources and traditional ones. Indeed, the Internet’s value for historians is constantly increasing, as the digitalization process is extended to include more and more institutions, and as the Web itself becomes an important primary source for historians.
Historical methodology refers to the work of analysis, synthesis and theory that is carried out in order to acquire historical knowledge. The historian compiles data by extracting information, generating working hypotheses and critically assessing data in order to confirm or refute those hypotheses. The Internet is now a very useful tool for that process. The digitalization of historical resources and their online accessibility saves time and money, since it means that historians no longer have to travel physically to the place where those sources are kept. This also facilitates comparative approaches.
Nevertheless, the amount of historical sources available online is not yet very significant, and varies considerably from country to country. Besides, many resources have been digitalized according to criteria which have little to do with research needs: it may have been done at someone’s request, because the original documents are deteriorating, due to a forthcoming anniversary, the political interests of some institutions or financial availability. Thus, there are doubts about the usefulness of digital resources, and some scholars insist that historians should participate in the digitalization of historical materials by helping to establish selection criteria. At the same time, questions have been raised about whether new methodologies for the research and teaching of history should be developed in order to take account of these materials.
My objective is to reflect on these problems through the analysis of a series of different free Internet resources that I have used in my own research into religious history. Given the range of the topic, I have decided to focus my attention on the issue that I presented in the first volume of CLIOHRES TWG3, namely the Dominican Order in Medieval Spain. This chapter should therefore be considered as a complement to that study. I also hope that some of the resources and methods introduced will be of interest to historians involved in more general research. This topic could be taken as an example of how to use the Internet for historical research. I am concerned not only to present the most important Spanish resources available online, especially those related to my topic (therefore offering a kind of guide to the most effective search procedures), but also to highlight the main problems involved in using Internet for historical research and reflect on the methodology needed for a critical analysis of digitalized contents. Finally, I will suggest some ways in which the situation may be improved, in accordance with historically useful criteria.