RB Search Gizmos

RB Search Gizmos: Get Resources About a Historical Figure with the Contemporary Biography Builder

Please Note: The ResearchBuzz Gizmos have moved to a new home at SearchGizmos.com. The Gizmos no longer look like these screenshots, but work the same.

The best thing about the Internet is that it’s constantly getting bigger, with more information being added every second.

The worst thing about the Internet is that it’s constantly getting bigger, with more information being added every second.

I was thinking the other day about Web-searching for historical figures. There’s so much research and content coming online now that it seems like older news and information might get buried when you’re trying to do research. It would be nice, I thought, if someone made a tool that restricted a search for a historical figure to their lifetime only.

Then I remembered I’m learning JavaScript so I made it myself. The Contemporary Biography Builder (CBB) is available at https://searchgizmos.com/2022/10/11/create-lifespan-web-searches-with-the-contemporary-biography-builder/  .

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CBB only works for people listed in Wikipedia, so don’t go poking around for tea about your cousin Fred. Enter a name and Wikipedia pulls the birth and death dates from Wikipedia (if the person is still alive it uses the current year instead) and generates lifespan-delimited searches for Google Books, Internet Archive, DPLA, and the Library of Congress’ historical newspapers database, Chronicling America.

Let’s use Louisa May Alcott as an example. Enter her name and click the Search Contemporary Information button, and CBB spits out a list of URLs, all of which will open in a new tab.

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In the case where there are different levels of access (full vs partial view, unlimited re-use vs restrictions) I created separate URLs. Click on a link and it’ll take you to a set of search results delimited by the years of the person’s lifespan – in LMA’s case, 1832-1888.

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For Google Books, the content is what you’d expect – newspapers, magazines, books, etc. For the Internet Archive and the DPLA, though, you can find more varied content. Here’s how a search over LMA’s lifespan looks at the Internet Archive:

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In this case, a search for LMA found a lot of books and stories, but also correspondence from her father, Amos Bronson Alcott. Similarly, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) finds multimedia resources from a number of collections:

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Finally, Chronicling America will find you lots of nice old content:

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I was very excited to see a mention of LMA in December 1854, when she was only 23. I clicked on it only to discover the most frustrating paper repair of all time:

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I was able to read some of it, but I spent way too much time squinting at this.

It’s not guaranteed that your searches will have results from all resources. In this case, there are no results for LMA in Google Books’ magazine collection (I suspect they don’t have any magazines that old.)

You’ll also find fewer results if you search for historical figures that go back more than about 200 years. When I searched for Jonathan Swift, for example (1667-1745), I found some books in Google Books (but no newspapers or magazines), a few things in the DPLA, a pretty good selection at the Internet Archive, and nothing in Chronicling America. Always check all the links, especially if you’re searching for older historical figures.

I had a couple of challenges putting this together (I had to figure out how to determine if someone listed on Wikipedia is dead or not; this is more difficult than you’d expect) so if you try it and anything weird happens, leave a comment. But mostly it should work fine. I hope it helps you make amazing discoveries!

2 replies »

  1. I am interested in this yet as someone researching ancestors with only a handful on Wikipedia but many not, I ask if this be enhanced (or a new version created) that accepts names and user provided birth/death dates). For example, I have 6 Loum Snows among my ancestors and 7 Jireh Swifts (all with B/D dates) and while I have much information, the contemporary info would be wonderful – and might lead to a Wikipedia entry.

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