Monday, January 27, 2014

Researching Historical Data

You know what it’s like. You’re writing an article, or a short story, and you need to know a specific historical detail. You know you have to get right, otherwise readers will be writing in and pointing out the error (because they do do that). Sometimes, though, it can be a little overwhelming knowing where to look for what you want. 

In these always-on-Internet-connected days we assume that we can simply type in our query into Google and within a few milliseconds Google will have returned a few million pages containing the answer we’re looking for. But sometimes Google doesn’t work … or rather, it doesn’t work right for us.

Caroline got in touch with such a problem. She was writing a piece set in the 1960s and she wanted to know the price of specific food items at this time. Like many of us, she’d turned to Google looking for her answers but was a little disappointed when she couldn’t find what she was looking for. 

The problem with Google is that it trains us to expect results in milliseconds. Got a query … Google it … Get answer. 

I ran a few searches to see if I could find anything. Governments keep loads of data, especially where retail prices are concerned, but specific price information seemed hard to come by. An appeal on social media came up with some great suggestions (so that’s always something to bear in mind). People suggested contacting a nostalgia magazine like Best of British and ask the readers to see what they could remember. Others found potential websites abroad and suggested converting to sterling (which might cause further problems - what were the exchange rates then? More searching required!), or alternatively searching some social history archives, such as some of those that the BBC maintain.

But then Caroline had an idea. She got in touch with Unilever, who own many of the food brands she was thinking about. They put her in touch with their archives department who replied with her answers within two days.

So, if Google doesn’t give you what you want, don’t give up. Caroline persisted and got the information she wanted. And she knows she’s got her information from a reliable source, something that Google may not always offer! Remember - there was research before Google, and those research sources can still be valuable today.

Good luck!