Editor's Note: "Resources for Free or Nearly Free Online Research" by Marjory Sente originally appeared as a sidebar to her research article "Visiting the Grand Canyon: Two Covers, One Inquisitive Mind and the Nexus of Social and Postal History" in the March 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. Read the full article here.
The internet has become a valuable tool for online research. It can put unheard-of amounts of information at your fingertips in seconds. Sometimes the abundance of data can be overwhelming. These are the online sites I used to discover information about Martha Burton Williamson and Nelly Peery Price. Let’s review some of the free and nearly free sites.
Google — www.Google.com is the search engine that has revolutionized how postal historians and many others do research. Founded in 1998, Google states, “Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I am always amazed at the information that can be found from a Google search. Whether it is an esoteric book on Google Books or the distance between two sites on Google Maps when I’m calculating the current rate of a parcel tag, the data is there. Sometimes you might encounter information that has not been vetted and has errors. So be careful to see who is posting the info — is it a professional in the field of study or a casual observer?
Google Scholar — Sometimes it’s helpful to check scholar.google.com during your research. Here are the features of Google Scholar: “search all scholarly literature from one convenient place; explore related works, citations, authors, and publications; locate the complete document through your library or on the web; keep up with recent developments in any area of research, and check who’s citing your publications.”
For broad searches of scholarly literature, Google Scholar is your friend. It provides access to sources across disciplines, from a wide range of publishers, professional societies, universities, online repositories, and more. Court opinions, theses, abstracts, and books are also available for your perusal.
Using this resource, I was able to find Mrs. Williamson’s article on her visit to the Grand Canyon, as well as many other articles that she had written. It also yielded information about Mrs. Price’s senior thesis at the State University of Iowa as well as an article about the University’s early female law school graduates.
Postal Bulletins — For postal history and social research, I have found some excellent sites. If I have a post office, rate, route or transportation question, I look at the postal bulletins at www.uspostalbulletins.com. This site hosts digitized postal bulletins from their beginning in 1880 through 2013. They are searchable using key words. As someone who used to spend many hours flipping through bound copies of this publication at the American Philatelic Research Library, this resource is truly magic.
Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers — This is the go-to site for newspapers that were published in the United States: chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/. The site contains more than 15 million digitized pages that were published in 46 states and one territory from 1789 through 1962. The U.S. Newspaper Directory lists more than 155,000 newspapers from 1690 to present. It can help identify what titles exist for a specific place and time, and how to access them.
The Library of Congress website says it best: “Chronicling America is a Website providing access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, and is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). NDNP . . . is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages.”
Elephind — What Chronicling America has done for America’s historic newspapers, Elephind is doing for the world. “The goal of Elephind.com is to make it possible to search all the world’s online historic newspapers from one place,” according to their website. Currently their coverage is primarily Australia and the United States. Chronicling America is a large subset of their digitized newspapers. I have found the search engine very easy to navigate and actually use it when I want to research the digitized newspapers that are part of Chronicling America.
NEARLY FREE SITES
I use some research sites that I put into the “nearly free” category, because I can access them with my local public library card. The library foots the bill for the subscription and makes it available to its card holders. For example, my library uses ProQuest which is a distributor of historical and scientific content on a subscription basis via the Internet. The available resources will be different for your own library, but my library has:
HeritageQuest — This is a comprehensive treasury of American genealogical sources — rich in unique primary sources, local and family histories, and finding aids. Its coverage dates back to the 1700s, which can help people find their ancestors and discover a place’s past. It has United States census documents from 1790 through 1940. Using the censuses, I was able to discover the members of Martha Williamson’s immediate family whose names matched those she cited on her note from the Grand Canyon.
Ancestry — An individual can pay for a subscription to Ancestry. It is, however, pricey if you are a casual researcher or genealogist. I can access its 20 billion records by going into my library and signing in. This resource, made available to my library through ProQuest, has family histories, vital records, immigration records, military records, court and legal documents, directories, photos, maps, and more. I used the Hendrick family records to confirm that Nelly Peery Price’s uncle was James W. Hendrick, and the 1900 Federal Census to confirm his address as 219 Soto St., Los Angeles, CA.
Sanborn Maps — Sanborn Maps are another type of content available from ProQuest. These are digitized 19th and 20th-century historical fire insurance maps for many Arizona cities from 1876 to 1970. My library only subscribes to the Arizona maps. The maps provide a wealth of information, such as building outline, size and shape, street and sidewalk widths, boundaries, and property numbers. Using this resource, I was able to gather background information on 520 N. 2th Avenue in Phoenix where Nelly was staying.
Many other free, nearly free and subscription online resources are available to researchers, but these will get you started on a productive path of discovery as you interpret your covers and postal history artifacts.