Book helps history buffs hunt for World War II on the Web

Plug the term "World War II" into an Internet search engine and prepare to sift through a mind-numbing 2 million results of varying reliability.

History professors Richard Jensen and J. Douglas Smith are trying to make the hunt for information about the war easier. They've compiled a road map to online resources, recently published as "World War II on the Web: A Guide to the Very Best Sites" (SR Books).

About 80 percent of the sites included in the guide are maintained by eager but often amateur historians, Mr. Jensen says.

"A librarian goes through and selects and rejects [books]. Nobody selects on the Web," Jensen says. "The purpose of the Web guide is to tell what's there. We usually ignore the mediocre and the bad stuff."

The first section reviews their top-rated sites in categories including political and military leaders, theaters of operations, the home front, and the Holocaust.

A whole chapter focuses on the oral histories of veterans. Many of the websites described in the book are posted by the families of soldiers and sailors and include letters from the front lines and diaries and photos from back home.

After a brief description, each site's content, aesthetics, and navigation are rated using stars.

Part 2 gives briefer treatment of an additional 250 sites worth visiting. If readers decide to turn to paper sources after reading the guide, the authors suggest a few key books to read, too.

In choosing sites, Mr. Smith says, they emphasized those with primary documents rather than just links to other sites.

They also tried to focus on sites associated with libraries or other institutions that are less likely to change quickly or vanish from the Internet any time soon.

Still, the authors say they realize much of what they publish will rapidly become out of date. They estimate about a quarter of the sites in the book will no longer work within a year.

Among Smith's favorites: The Yale Law School's Avalon Project, which provides centuries' worth of documents related to diplomacy (http:// www.yale.edu/lawweb/ avalon/avalon. html); Rutgers Oral History Archive of World War II (http://fas-history.rutgers.edu/oralhistory/orlhom.htm); and a site featuring political cartoons drawn by Theodore Geisel, who went on to greater fame as Dr. Seuss (http://orpheus.ucsd.edu/speccoll/dspolitic).

The guidebook comes with a CD-ROM version so users can click on the sites' names instead of trying to type in the full name.

Jensen, who taught history at the University of Illinois-Chicago for 27 years, says his interest in the Web began a decade ago.

He helped set up 65 e-mail discussion lists in history and related fields. He still edits a list on ethnic history while creating online guides to military history.

The authors say their target audience is not academics, but rather average readers who stoke their curiosity about the war by browsing the shelves in popular bookstores.

Jensen says he plans to publish additional online guides to Civil War history and global military history next year. Websites can make for a "remarkable" trove of information about the war, Smith says.

But he warns his students at Occidental College in California that they still must hit the library before handing in any research papers.

On the Web, he says, "they can't find the secondary material needed to do a really good job on a research paper."

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