Google today unveils an outstanding new service called news archive search. Arguably the single greatest research tool yet to appear on the web, it allows you to search back through more than a century’s worth of source material, from the Washington Post to the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, from Time Magazine to Loislaw Federal District Court Opinions, from the Encyclopedia Britannica to the World Almanac. You can narrow your search by date or create a timeline of mentions of your key words. Depending on the source, the documents you uncover may be available for free, through subscription, or as pay-per-view. All transactions are carried out directly with the source on the source’s site.
This a boon for researchers as well as for anyone looking to follow a subject back in time. In five minutes this morning, I found new source material on the early development of the business machines industry that I will be able to use in writing my next book. It should also serve as at least a modest new source of revenue for newspapers, magazines, and reference works.
More important, this marks an important step forward in building a sense of history into the Internet. It takes us beyond the relentless now-ness that has characterized most of the web up until now. I hope Google takes the next logical step and begins to allow regular web searches to be limited to spans of time in the past. Right now, Google and other search engines only allow you to constrain a search to the present (eg, pages updated in the last three months or the last year), not to the past (eg, pages last updated prior to 2000 or during 2002). That, too, would help the net become a more useful repository of history.
One last note: Many historical articles and other documents can be found or ordered for free through your local library. The Google news archive provides a good starting point, but your library and its reference librarians are an invaluable resource for tracking down documents and expanding searches in creative ways. Use them, and support them.