Guest Post: Research Tips from the Trenches

By April 18, 2017Research Tips

As we gear up for History Unfolded’s first full school year, citizen historian Judith Haran has a few tips for your research. She’s submitted over 100 articles so far, so she knows what she’s talking about!

Here’s Judith:

When I first discovered History Unfolded in April, I opened an account, but didn’t start researching until Eric emailed me a week later, thanking me for joining and asking if he could be of assistance. I promptly called him to share my doubts about using microfilm readers. Little did I know that technology had advanced since the last time I used one (1989) – I was thrilled to discover how simple it is now to capture a digital image using the new readers (well, it’s simple on a good day!). I headed off for my local city library, spent ten minutes with the reference librarian, and 90 minutes later had my first ten articles ready to submit.

Not all of my articles were accepted, however. Some were lacking key features. Here’s what I have learned since then.

There are three types of research: microfilm-based, which one does in a physical archive; limited-access internet-based (requires you to be at an institution which has paid for the access, or to be an alumnus/employee of such an institution) and open-access internet-based, which one can do in one’s pajamas at home. Each has its pros and cons. Let’s take them in order.

Ambassadors from USHMM's Bringing the Lessons Home program research in microfilm at DC's MLK Jr. Library.

Photo: Ambassadors from USHMM’s Bringing the Lessons Home program research in microfilm at DC’s MLK Jr. Library.

  • Microfilm: If you’re working with microfilm, always try to include the name of the paper, the date of publication and the page number in your scan. The newest digital readers make it easy, but with the older ones, only rectangular images are feasible, making this a real challenge for those articles at the bottom of the page.
    • Since April, I’ve encountered four different digital microfilm readers; two were nearly idiot-proof, one was just OK, and the fourth was so difficult, even the librarian didn’t understand it. If you’re in an area with a difficult system, and it seems to be beyond your capacities, don’t despair – see if you can switch to online research instead. Most microfilm readers take a while to learn – there are buttons to adjust brightness, to straighten out the image, and to zoom in and out.
    • In general, the idea is to create images using the software, and to email the images to yourself by opening a browser and going into your email account. Some systems have a direct “send an email” feature; some don’t. Without this feature, you’ll be saving the images to a folder on the library’s computer, so bring a USB stick so you can access the articles later. [Ed. note: History Unfolded also works great on your mobile device: you can take a photo of the image on your microfilm reader and upload it to the site directly.]
  • Limited-access online newspaper archives: The only one I’ve used so far is ProQuest. Some version of it is available at most universities. It’s well-designed and easy to use: articles are available as PDF files or as images of the original newspaper. It’s easiest to collect them by using the Snipping Tool in Windows (found under All Programs) or the Mac screengrab shortcut (command-shift-4). Don’t be tempted by the “email” button on the PDF images; they’ll arrive minus the essential date/page info on the top. On a Mac, I collect the images on the desktop and drop/drag them into an email to myself whenever I collect ten or so. Later, at home, I download them, rename them, and upload them.
  • Free-access online news archives.
    • The one I use the most is Google’s Newspaper Archive. You’ll have to search to find a paper published between 1933 and 1945, but there are some. The site is a bit clunky, but easy to get used to. It’s “browse only” – no search feature here. When you find something good, use the Snipping Tool mentioned above.
    • Another excellent site is the Pittsburgh Jewish Newspaper ProjectThis one is great: you can search by keyword, put in a range of dates, and see what comes up. The images are excellent, too. For example, using the search term “Warsaw Ghetto” and a date range covering 1942-1944 pulls up 86 articles from the Jewish Criterion, a major Pittsburgh weekly no longer in existence. You could spend the rest of 2016 collecting articles from this paper alone. Much of the most thoughtful and insightful material I’ve found has come from the Criterion.

It all seems rather daunting at the beginning, but it quickly becomes a lot of fun. And it can become addictive, so watch out!

[From Elissa: Thanks, Judith! We’re updating History Unfolded right now, and will be sharing more resources with you soon for where you can find each of these resources near you. Inspired to submit a guest post? Write to us at historyunfolded [at] ushmm [dot] org! Eric will be back in two weeks to share more community manager thoughts.]