Electronic Eye December 2016

Making Sense of History: Historical Databases for Research and Study

Kathleen Meulen

When I was a college student a few decades ago, my music major friends and I had an expression that we would use when we thought something was really dull: we could compare it to Grout. Grout was definitely not the stuff that you find between your bathroom tiles, Grout was our music history textbook: A History of Western Music, 4th Edition, written by Donald J. Grout and Claude Palisca. That book made what might be considered a lively topic–after all, it is about music!–into something that was so tedious that it was hard to gain any knowledge from it.

In retrospect, I think that the late Drs. Grout and Palisca had a challenging task: to make the history of a subject comprehensible without the reader having access to the actual subject material. Back in the early 90s, it was not as easy to cue up the music to go along with the text.

For the sake of all those current college students out there, I’m happy to note that the 9th edition of this authoritative text is one that has “total access” to the music. With 220 streamed media files embedded in the e-text, it is likely not as “dry as Grout” now.

I’m sharing this walk down memory lane because it highlights the fact that history is best understood when the learner has access to many different types of resources. From historical documents, maps, and images, to videos and other forms of multimedia, they all work together to help the learner gain a full picture of the period in history and make sense of historical concepts.

Online databases that focus on history and contain many different types of media can be an invaluable support to a learner. The following two online products can contribute to an online resource collection in this way.

ABC-CLIO Solutions


ABC-CLIO Solutions has long been an established online resource company producing history and social studies content and their products have continued to evolve. I will be reviewing this year’s update to their online presence. They undertook a significant improvement to the interface.

The company bills itself as “your source for online history” and I’m not going to refute that. In fact, they have fifteen different databases that range in topics from American History and American Government to World History and World Religions. They also have three separate multicultural databases called “The American Mosaic” which focuses on the experiences of African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and Native-Americans. They even have one on popular culture and another on Daily Life of different cultures throughout history.

Each database is designed to fill two different purposes. First, each database is a research library that contains primary and secondary sources for students to access as well as other types of media. Everything in the database is searchable via a search box on the top left of the screen and a user can also search across databases, if several are available. The advanced search options allow users to limit by the type of resource as well as location. These advanced search options are all represented as checkboxes, which is helpful so that a user doesn’t have to learn syntax codes. But there are a lot of checkboxes to sort through, especially considering that all the countries of the world are separately represented.

The database has also been structured so that it could be used as an online textbook for a course or independent study. They have organized all the content into topics. For each topic, there are three components: Explore, Analyze, and Research.

The “Explore” component introduces the topic. There is generally a very well written opening essay and sometimes there are video lectures that teach a concept more closely. While these video lectures are somewhat static and generally look like a slide presentation with narration and some historical images, they are very clear in their explanation of the concept and will further a learner’s understanding. ABC-CLIO has also wisely chosen to include a transcript of the video so that users who are accessing the content while conducting research can scan the text to see whether the information is pertinent to their topic. Most explore sections close with a suggested activity to help further a learner’s thinking as well as essay questions. Activities include creating an index card file of inventions and their significance or reading the biography and then analyzing a cartoon featuring that historical figure.

The “Analyze” section is not present in every topic. When it is available, it presents two perspectives on a question that is essential to the topic. For instance, the American Revolutionary Era topic focuses on the following essential question: How did having a common enemy influence colonial political organization? Each perspective is then shared in a “Defining Moment” essay. This work comparing two perspectives allows learners an excellent opportunity to work on their analytical skills. The analyze section also has twenty-five question quizzes embedded in that allow students to check their understanding.

Finally, the “Research” section links to many types of sources that are relevant to the topic. These include general resources like biographies and reference articles, media which includes photos and illustration, political cartoons, posters and document images, maps, and “other visuals.” The other visuals are infographic-like images that present a concept. For instance, there is a visual that explains the concept of mercantilism. At the very end of the research section, there is a collection of primary source documents such as speeches and letters.

Most of the articles and essays are signed which adds to the credibility of the information. The structure and clarity of the writing allows these databases to be an excellent choice for a teacher to use as a primary textbook. This solution is also a boon to homeschooled students in the upper grades.

The new interface is a vast improvement over the past interface. The new design is cleaner and offers a more spacious reading experience. The colorful top banner identifies which database a user has accessed. The bar on the left serves as a table of contents when users access a topic. This bar shows the different components for a topic and then a very prominent plus sign allows users to expand the sub-headings and view all that is connected to this topic.

There are several user tools that are available near the top right of the screen, including saving articles to Google Drive or Dropbox, e-mailing articles, printing, and receiving a source citation.

ABC-CLIO continues to be a strong resource in the social studies and history research market.

ProQuest Historic Map Works Library Edition


Last year, I received a request from a teacher to help him find a very specialized map of our state. He had found a thumbnail of it while doing a Google Image search and wanted more complete access. I quickly discovered that it could be accessed as a part of ProQuest’s Historic Map Works Library Edition which is ProQuest’s library version of the Historic Map Works online store. This online store allows users to view maps online but there is a significant watermark on the image. Users can order prints without watermarks or can order watermarked online copies.

To have these maps available without watermarks as a library database is so cool, and I will also say that it is rather addictive as well! One can spend a great deal of time enjoying looking back through the geographical history of a place.

The collection contains over 1.5 million high resolution historical maps without the Historical Map Works watermark. Many of the maps from the United States are “cadastral.” This was a new vocabulary word for me and it means that the maps refer to property boundaries and ownership for the purposes of taxation. A researcher can find a map online that shows the names of people who lived in a certain location over a period of time. This is an incredible boon to genealogists and people who are interested in family history. These maps can also demonstrate the development of the United States.

There are also over 100,000 antiquarian maps from around the world ranging from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries as well as scans of directories and other illustrations. The illustrations include my absolute favorite type of geographical illustration: the bird’s eye map. There are so many bird’s eye maps in this database.

There is much to excite and interest learners and researchers by viewing historical maps and images and this database can help bring the past alive for learners.

meulen-headshot-used-with-permissionKathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest.  She can be reached at kellison@bisd303.org




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