Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) is considered by many to be the godfather of the internet. He was never directly involved in its development, but in a celebrated article published in 1945, As We May Think, he envisaged the creation of a system called a ‘memex’ which linked information in a way which anticipated modern hypertextual links.
This Lodge sponsored one of the earliest internet sites on Freemasonry, A Page About Freemasonry, which has now had over a million visitors and is still a useful gateway to some of the Masonic sources on the internet at (web.mit.edu/dryfoo/www/Masons/).
We can imagine that Bush, as a visionary of information management and a Freemason, would have been thrilled with the range and quality of material on the history of Freemasonry now available on the internet. While there have been for many years a number of very high quality internet resources on Freemasonry, in the past 18 months there has been a sea-change in the quantity and character of internet resources. This means that the internet is now potentially a tool for serious and original research into Freemasonry.
The internet does not change the basic requirement of good historical research, namely that it should be based on original, first-hand and contemporary information: minutes, letters, diaries, newspaper reports, and so on. Increasingly, historians are also starting to exploit pictorial sources and artefacts, ranging from photographs to film.
Since its earliest days, the most valuable feature of the internet has been its ability to make available remotely, library and archive catalogues, enabling researchers more quickly to identify the whereabouts of relevant source materials.
For researchers into Freemasonry, the indispensable starting point is the on-line catalogue of the Library and Museum of Freemasonry, which gives access to the most important Masonic collection in the world at www.freemasonry.london.museum.
The catalogue of the Library and Museum does not simply cover its wonderful book collections. Its coverage of the archives and manuscripts held at Great Queen Street is already extensive and growing daily. Particularly valuable are the catalogue records for the historical correspondence and the correspondence in the sequence of annual returns, which contain short summaries of the contents of the letters.
Another exciting and innovative feature of the Library and Museum’s catalogue is that it covers thousands of items in the Museum’s jewel collections. Moreover, images are provided of all these jewels, so that internet users can effectively browse through the Museum’s jewel collection at home.
A number of European and American Masonic libraries have also made their catalogues available on the internet. The library of the Grand Orient of the Netherlands contains the collections of Georg Kloss, a 19th-century scholar, who sought to acquire a copy of every book published on Freemasonry. Go to (www.vrijmetselarij.nl).
Another major Masonic museum whose catalogue is available on-line is Van-Gorden Williams Library at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts (nationalheritagemuseum.org).
However, in order to gain new insights into the history of Freemasonry, it is essential to make use of major research libraries besides those run by Freemasons.
The COPAC web site gives consolidated access to the catalogues of major research and university libraries in Britain, including the British Library and the National Libraries of Wales and Scotland. A search on ‘freemason’ in COPAC gives 6,383 hits!
The bread and butter of the historian are archival documents, and there are now many internet tools which help trace these materials. The on-line catalogue of the National Archives at Kew contains over 9.5 million records (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk).
The British Library’s Manuscript Collections contain many celebrated Masonic items, such as the medieval Regius and Cooke manuscripts. A search on ‘freemason’ in the British Library’s Manuscript catalogue (molcat.bl.uk) reveals that the collections include many other equally fascinating, but less well known items with Masonic associations.
These range from a report of the arrest of a Freemason in Padua in 1794 to the Masonic certificate of the Regency Dandy ‘Beau’ Brummel. The collections even include the Masonic apron of Lord Carnarvon, a 19th century Pro Grand Master.
Apart from library and archive catalogues, the internet makes more widely available a number of specialist research tools. For Masonic researchers in England, the most important of these is probably the searchable version of John Lane’s historical directory listing all Masonic Lodges warranted by the English Grand Lodges between 1717 and 1894. This has been made available jointly by the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at the University of Sheffield and the Library and Museum of Freemasonry (http://www.freemasonry.london.museum/).
There has been a recent announcement of a joint project between the search engine Google, the Bodleian Library and a number of American research libraries to make available on the internet full-text versions of large parts of their collections.
It is the prospect of obtaining access at home to the complete texts of books and documents in these major research collections which will most excite the researcher. But we do not need to wait for the completion of this exciting project. Already many transcripts and images of books and documents of value to the Masonic researcher can be obtained on the internet.
The National Archives http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/ allows users search and to purchase probate copies of wills for £3.30 each. downloadable direct to your desktop. For this price, you can purchase copies of the wills of such celebrated Masonic figures as Desaguliers, Dermott and Dunckerley. For those investigating the lives of members of a particular Lodge, the online censuses, for which there is also a charge, are invaluable tools (www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/census).
The Old Bailey Proceedings are reports of criminal trials in London between 1674 and 1839. They have been transcribed and placed online by the Universities of Sheffield and Hertfordshire (www.oldbaileyonline.org).
They reveal aspects of London’s everyday life which are not recorded elsewhere, and among the trials will be found details of a theft during a Masonic initiation at the Goose and Gridiron in 1767, and the appearance of John Pine, the engraver of the first Book of Constitutions, as an expert witness in the trial of a man accused of forging a seal die.
The most fascinating material in the various NOF sites for the Masonic researcher are probably the various photographs of Masonic activities and artefacts. The ‘Gathering the Jewels’ site from Wales includes a digitised copy of the programme of a Masonic bazaar held in Wrexham in 1912, and a procession of Freemasons, which was part of the civic procession to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 (www.gtj.org.uk).
The Imagine York website features a photograph of James Melrose, who was Lord Mayor of York in 1876, lived to be 100, and was a Freemason for more than 75 years (www.imagineyork.co.uk).
But the most remarkable Masonic material on the internet is on the British Pathé website (www.britishpathe.com). This remarkable project has digitised the entire film archive of the famous newsreel firm. all the clips are available watch for free, and clips can be purchased online.
The archive gives extraordinary insights into every conceivable aspect of British life during the 20th century, and includes a number of films of Masonic stone-layings and processions in the 1920s, including the launch of the Masonic lifeboat The Duke of Connaught at Peterhead in 1922 and the unveiling of a memorial window at Sheffield Cathedral in 1920.
It has only been possible here to give a hint of the potential of the internet for the Masonic researcher. Anybody who spends an afternoon browsing through some of the sites mentioned here will certainly find an aspect of the history of Freemasonry that has not previously been noticed. However, to research and write the history of Freemasonry, simply unearthing new facts and documents is not enough.
It is necessary to place any discoveries in the context of current scholarly discussions and concerns. To establish what these are, the key tool still remains, for the time being, an old-fashioned library.