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History is a click away: The best digital tools for Texas history buffs

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
A photograph by Russell Lee shows a man slicing barbecue at the Gonzales County Fair in 1939. The namesake for Lee Elementary in Austin, Lee's groundbreaking work for the federal government during the Great Depression can be accessed online at the Library of Congress and the Briscoe Center for American History.

Although I dearly love a good library or archive — and goodness knows I cherish taking road trips to talk to historical witnesses or experts in person — some of the sharpest tools for Texas history research are as close as your favorite digital device.

Today's column is devoted to some of the most reliable digital resources. Please send your favorites to

'The Handbook of Texas Online'

Originally published for decades in two volumes by the essential Texas State Historical Association, "The Handbook of Texas" could be found in any reference library worth the name in this state and beyond.

In the 1990s, I purchased "The New Handbook of Texas," a six-volume revision that has served me with unswerving accuracy ever since.

"The Handbook of Texas Online" is an improvement on both sets of books because it can be revised instantly. It allows historians and history buffs to expand the work's encyclopedic range to topics ignored and voices suppressed in earlier ages.

Despite the loud claims of some cultural warriors, after all, a standard history that is not revised with updated discoveries and ideas is not a reliable history at all. 

The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, part of the USA Today Network, runs a dandy Texas history column called Caprock Chronicles. This photo of XIT Ranch cowboys circa 1881 was provided by the digital resource, "Portal to Texas History."

'Portal to Texas History'

A gold mine of words and images, this website from the University of North Texas Libraries combines the digitized resources of countless libraries, archives and history centers in the state. It offers several ways to limit your searches by media, county or type of artifact, and includes digitized newspapers, city directories and other invaluable resources. 

At "Portal to Texas History," you can download digital images in a choice of sizes, but be sure to record and share the accurate credits if you distribute an image. Check on fair use and copyright issues as well. 

'Traces of Texas'

This poster of Texas images, mostly historical, on Facebook and Twitter, as well as his own website, might be the most ingenious state historian of them all. I've met Jac Darsnek in person, but to most readers in the digital world, he remains fairly anonymous.

He applies a photographer's eye for singularity and detail to the project.

Featured in Texas Highways magazine, Darsnek brings a delicate sense of courtesy and diplomacy to the subject. He graciously thanks his fans for their donated family photos and he avoids partisanship at all costs. Still, politics seep into all history, as anyone who has followed the ongoing plans to renovate Alamo Plaza will remind you.

You can purchase contemporary and historical photos at, which includes a forum on Texas culture and history.

More:Texas History: The Rio Grande is 'The River That Runs Through Me'

A few years ago, I switched from ProQuest, which requires only a public library card, to this pay site, owned by, because the range of archived newspapers and the on-screen tools are superior. I even upgraded to a higher level because I work so often in this digital space.

From Traces of Texas: "Wiley Clarkson sent in this great  image of his grandmother, Mary Kate Johnson, in Corsicana. This was the first car in Corsicana and was owned by Mary Kate's father, Dr. Samuel Wistar Johnson —making Mary, most likely, the first female driver in Corsicana. Her great grandfather was Hampton McKinney, the first settler on the land that Corsicana now occupies and the man who gave the land his house was on to the city for the square and county courthouse. Wiley's grandmother married his grandfather, Wiley G. Clarkson, also of Corsicana, in 1912 and they then immediately moved to Fort Worth where he would become one Texas’ most respected architects, working there in Cowtown from 1912-1952. "

The recently redesigned landing page requires some adjustments if you used in the past. Still, the access is priceless and anyone who went nearly blind staring at microfilm in the bad old days will tell you it's a lifesaver. I have not yet subscribed to, but even its free zones are useful, especially if you are doing genealogical work.

This site, rather like Wikipedia, proves the power of grassroots research. Thousands of contributors have photographed more than 210 million historical gravesites and have annotated them with extraordinary accuracy. The family trees at alone have answered numerous questions posed to me by Texas readers.

At other spots on the internet, some birth registries, ship records, legal papers, city directories and census counts have been digitized. The U.S. Census for 1950, the most recent available in this manner, was just released on April 1. 

The New Isis Theater concession stand in Fort Worth in 1983. Texas history is not just about big-picture events, but also about daily life. Thousands of such images can be found at the University of Texas Arlington Libraries website.

University of Texas Arlington

While many Texas universities offer parts of their collections online, a special mention should be made of UT Arlington Libraries, which has been collecting historical images of the state for a long time. It is universally admired for it.

Some others to check out: Briscoe Center for American History, Ransom Center and LBJ Presidential Library, all at the University of Texas in Austin. Colleges and universities also support academic centers that study one Texas history topic, such as freedom colonies at Texas A&M University and lynchings at Sam Houston State University.

Digital magazines

Because they are proprietary, I rarely use images taken by photographers at Texas Monthly, Texas Highways, Alcalde or other digital magazines. I do, however, avail myself of their story archives, where much Texas history is artfully recorded. Remember that if you are going to republish any fragments, obtain permission of the author and/or publisher.

Localized sources

Blogs, websites and social media posts that focus on a single Texas city or region are multiplying by the day. I'm a close follower, for instance, of Dentonaut (Denton) and Houstorian (Houston) on Twitter, as well as Red River Historian (North Texas) on Facebook. I'd gladly follow many more.

More:Tom Staley, who built UT's Ransom Center into a global powerhouse, has died at age 86

In Austin, not a day goes by without checking "Dazed and Confused Austin Edition/Pieces of the Past," a Facebook page that publishes thousands of fantastic pictures of long-ago Austin with thoughtful and usually polite commentary that is particularly instructive.

Digital podcasts are devoted to all sorts of Texas subjects, including Evan Stern's "Vanishing Postcards," "TxArcanaRadio" and, of course, "Austin Found," which radio personality J.B. Hager and I produce on Austin history.

Several newspapers, such as the Houston Chronicle, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, El Paso Times and Corpus Christi Caller Times, have run regular local or regional history columns that are published digitally. 

Did you know that your subscription to the e-edition of this newspaper gives you access to the e-editions of more than 200 newspapers in the USA Today Network, including more than a dozen in Texas, and that you can share your password with friends and family?

The Galveston History Center at the Rosenberg Library has digitized an enormous number of photos, including many of the 1900 Galveston storm.

Libraries online

I've already celebrated Texas universities that preserve and make available research material, but I didn't want to leave out public libraries that do so as well. Among the ones I use most commonly these days are the Austin History Center and the Rosenberg Library's History Center (Galveston).

The largest library of all, the Library of Congress, is also a free and excellent resource.

Additionally, several state agencies make their collections available online. Among these, I use the Texas General Land Office mostly for maps, the Texas Historical Commission for background on markers and designated historic sites, and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission for material that they have published on their vast collections of books, artifacts and government records. The TSLAC watermarks their images. You must request copies without watermarks.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at