The best of broadband - History on the Internet
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Date: 23 March, 2005

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'History is full of strange words and expressions - it thrives on arcane terminology.'

History has to be one of the most exciting subjects to research on the internet. Lightning fast broadband internet access means that searching massive databases for information only takes a few seconds whilst multimedia video and sound clips allows you to visualize the past in a way that has never been possible before.

Trawling through the best UK history sites is great fun. Each web site has a different approach and each offers a different historical perspective. Just as well because history appeals to people in a myriad of different ways.

The first stage for most people is to enter a word into a search engine and press the go button but please be aware that history demands attention to detail. I suggest you go to www.google.co.uk and have a good look at their ‘Advanced Search’ page. This will allow you to define your search criteria very closely and save you lots of time sieving through inappropriate returns.

Now before you rush away and start firing off searches like a shotgun you should think very carefully about what you are looking for. History is full of strange words and expressions - it thrives on arcane terminology - so a good dictionary might be handy to make sure you have spelt your search criteria correctly.

Remember that, until relatively recently, there was no correct way to spell anything. You simply had a good try and that was sufficient. This makes finding information in record office databases quite difficult as you can never be quite sure that you have spelt a word in the same way as the original author.

Essentially, if you don’t find something right away, have a few tries with other ways of spelling the word you are looking for. To give you some idea, a common word like ‘pies’ can be spelt: Pyes, Peyes, Pise or Payes. All were perfectly acceptable spellings in the 16th and 17th century.

So what sort of historic information can be found on the Internet?

To be quite honest, there isn’t much you can’t find if you know where to look. Obviously the more le arned academic books are rarely available as digital downloads because they are very expensive and the copyright owners guard them carefully. However, don’t despair as there are plenty of useful reference works available for free at the Project Gutenberg web site www.gutenberg.org.

Family history has become incredibly popular in recent years. The hunt for our ancestors can become an obsession but fortunately there are some excellent websites to help you track down your past. My current favorite has to be www.burkes-peerage.net which explains pretty much all there is to know about the gentry including royalty, titles and heraldry.

For hands on genealogy you could do a lot worse than look at the Federation of Family History Societies pay-to-view website at www.familyhistoryonline.net . I know it costs money but you tend to get what you pay for these days.

My own experience as editor of www.history.uk.com tells me that good databases take a lot of maintenance and hard work to keep them current.

History.uk.com is all about ‘hands on’ history and provides completely free access to more than 30,000 listings of people, places and organizations associated with uk history and has the most comprehensive and easy to use timeline around. There is also an historic recipe section and a lot of information about historic crafts. Just click on www.history.uk.com and have a good look around.

Like most people I really enjoy castles and, living in Ludlow on the Welsh/English border, my first choice is definitely www.castlewales.com. This site is probably the most comprehensive Welsh castle site on the internet with masses of useful information, superb photography and great descriptions - there are quite a number of English castles listed too. Highly recommended!

Stately homes are also well represented on the Internet. The National Trust website is absolutely massive but sadly, for an institution dedicated to preserving national treasures, it doesn’t say very much about the properties it cares for. In fact I find www.nationaltrust.org.uk a bit stuffy, rather boring and something of a disappointment. I much prefer the National Trust for Scotland’s website www.nts.org.uk as it has a much more dynamic feel to it.

To summarise: there is plenty of superb history on the Internet, you simply have to look for it. If you don’t have a favorite period then just go to any of these excellent websites and start surfing through their links pages. You will be amazed at what you find. Enjoy!

Ray Hatley is a freelance journalist working for a number of national newspapers ands magazines.

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