When the Internet was new, it was all about the data. Databases, data sets, lists of this, that, and the other. Nowadays, hidden under thick layers of social media and bouncing-fruit apps, the data sets are still there, just waiting for you to rummage through and search.
This came to mind with the recent announcement from Dutchess County Clerk Brad Kendall that the “MacCracken Index” of the County’s “Ancient Documents Collection” has been digitized and made available for searching online. Thinking that this could be a fun mental excursion reminded me of all the interesting and useful, and even fun, things that I used to find by wandering around the Internet from the comfort of my keyboard.
So let’s start with that MacCracken Index of Ancient Documents. (Go to DutchessNY.gov online and search “MacCracken Index.” Or try this web address: http://tinyw.in/Q4Ak online.) It is 52,000 pages of documents from the Dutchess County Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions, 1721 to 1820. When you enter the site, there’s a form for searches, but you don’t have to fill it all in. Out of curiosity, which is allowed, I simply entered “Pepper” in the “Parties” field and left all the other fields blank. Surprise to me! A list of documents came back with the oldest being from 1734. It seems that a fellow named Thomas Pepper (no known relation) was accused of burglary. The handwritten document is a little befuddling, so it’s not clear what he was accused of burgling, but reading the rest of the document includes mentions of another case involving a questionable drowning. I haven’t yet found what happened to old Tom, but one wonders what one will find if one enters your name in the search!
Back in the day (the olden times of 1980 or so), just finding the databases was an adventure. You had to find lists of lists compiled by volunteer enthusiasts and left as trail markers in the wild Internet. These days, happily, we have the magic and majesty of Internet indexes like Google and Bing and the like. No hacking through the data brambles; just come up with an idea and drop it into the knowledge fountain at Google and see what squirts up from the well. Pick a topic; any topic!
Encouraged by the idea of “old documents,” I searched for that in Google and came up with (duh!) the U.S. National Archives (www.Archives.gov), a searchable database of astounding depth and breadth that includes documents, photographs, maps, patents, letters, music, and just all sorts of amazing things.
By the way, if you find pleasure in searching through old documents, the National Archives has an online program called “Citizen Archivist” (Archives.gov/Citizen-Archivist) where volunteers assist in making the Archive more searchable by doing such things as transcribing old hand-written documents and “tagging” items with names and points of interest. It’s fun, and certainly worth a bunch of points for your virtual citizenship merit badge.
But back to searching: I also found a list of searchable libraries with thousands upon thousands of searchable digitized “primary source” documents of all imaginable sorts. Plus databases of agricultural data, travel data, scientific data, and art and music, too. The Internet always promised access to information, and it seems that the promise is being fulfilled.
Mike Pepper, The Computer Guy, has been providing software and hardware support in New York and Connecticut for more than 35 years. He can be reached at (845) 855-5824, or www.PawlingComputerGuy.com.