UNTIL RECENTLY, IF you were a historian and you wanted to write a fresh account of, say, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, research was a pretty straightforward business. You would pack your bags and head to the National Archives, and spend months looking for something new in the official combat reports.
Today, however, you might first do something very different: Get online and pull up any of the unofficial websites of the ships that participated in the battle – the USS Pennsylvania, for example, or the USS Washington. Lovingly maintained by former crew members and their descendants, these sites are sprawling, loosely organized repositories of photographs, personal recollections, transcribed log books, and miniature biographies of virtually every person who served on board the ship. Some of these sites even include contact information for surviving crew members and their relatives – perfect for tracking down new diaries, photographs, and letters.
Online gathering spots like these represent a potentially radical change to historical research, a craft that has changed little for decades, if not centuries.
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