Encyclopedia Titanica

Titanic Text : Demystifying historical study


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Internet research tips for beginners

From biographies and cultural essays to technical papers and scientific analyses, ET Research at Encyclopedia-Titanica.org is the leading online destination for original, in-depth studies in ocean liner history. ET Research has proudly published the work of leading scholars in maritime and social history but is actively interested in promoting new writers as well.

More than ever before, starting research on almost any subject is easier thanks to the home computer.

Internet destinations for historical and genealogical study are numerous and varied, an inspiring fact for new researchers interested in taking their love of history in general –– and of Titanic in particular –– out of the realm of armchair criticism and into the world of hands-on investigation. Incredible discoveries await the diligent scribe in libraries, museums, galleries, archives and online databases.

Part One: Listen to the Experts

Providing special insight into the process of documentation are recommendations from writers in the field of Titanica, some of whom have been published by ET Research.

Writer. lecturer and curator Inger Sheil, who is writing biographies of Fifth Officer Harold Lowe and Sixth Officer James Moody, recommends that would-be researchers consult "the many good genealogical guides" to be found in almost any large library. "If they’re researching people," she says, "that would be the first place I’d send a newbie. "(These sources) can either be broad in scope or quite focused (e.g. how to trace records on a Freemason ancestor, mercantile marine ancestors, ancestors that served in the police force, etc). Some of this can even be found free on-line. The guides to sources and techniques, applicable to passenger and crew research, are particularly useful in the case of those who left few private documents, and whose lives have to be reconstructed from ‘official’ sources."

Sheil also suggests that researchers approaching a subject’s next of kin, or even more distant relatives, show "initiative and genuine interest," be as informed as possible and respectful.

"I find that it helps to know as much as possible about historical figures before you approach their descendents for information," she says. "This helps establish your bona fides and demonstrates that you're acting from more than idle curiosity."

She also advises researchers to "have intelligent and focused questions prepared," adding that, "too often, new Titanic researchers, excited by being in contact with someone 'connected' with the disaster, don't know where to begin. Asking them to ‘tell me everything about your great-great uncle' is going to overwhelm the interviewee."

Finally Sheil stresses the need for new researchers to "establish friendly, professional relations with people who work in the field –– academics, archivists, historians etc. Treat them with courtesy and they will often go the extra mile to help you. There are, sadly, some researchers who write demanding, abrupt letters and emails to correspondents –– this is very off-putting. Treat them with the same professionalism as you would hope they would treat your inquiry. Any would-be researcher is going to be writing a great many emails and letters, making a great many phone calls, and will often be visiting archives in person. Communication is a skill –– make sure your own abilities are good, and if not, work on their development."

One of the more promising young researchers at work in the field of liner history today is Mark Chirnside, who at age 20 has already published two well-received books on White Star Line ships. He says that his experiences may help other young writers get their projects started.

"Libraries and archives such as as the British Library's Newspaper Library in Colindale have age limits," Chirnside explains, "whereby you might not be able to visit if you are under 18. For myself, I spoke to the manager when I wanted to visit (I was then 17) but because I was doing 'private research' and not an A-level project, and because of my age, I wasn't allowed to visit; I had to do a lot of my earlier work through correspondence." That didn’t deter Chirnside who says that, from the age of 15, he was able to research at the Public Record Office, now the National Archives, so long as he was accompanied by an adult. He recommends that researchers visit libraries and archives already well-prepared, having a "game plan" set so as to not waste time looking up files that can be accessed online.

"Similarly, if you can, let the archive know what you want to see (ahead of time)," he suggests. "The National Archives lets you order several documents online with a visitor's card, and since some papers are held offsite and need days of notice, that's a good thing."

Mark Baber, a researcher who has contributed much to Encyclopedia-Titanica’s database of contemporary news stories, offers the advice to always "keep your eyes open" when working on other projects.

"I'm sure I'm not alone in having inadvertently come across something I've been searching for while doing completely unrelated research," Baber says. "Indices are not complete and news doesn't always appear when or where you'd expect it, but if you keep your eyes open, you'll be amazed by what you can find. One example of this is an article I unearthed several years ago, explaining how the White Star musicians became passengers rather than crew members. I came across that completely by accident, while doing some non-Titanic local history research."

He urges researchers not to "hesitate to ask for help or advice" from experts but warns that they should "be reasonable" in their requests.

"Some folks barge into research fora like ET," Baber observes, "with a seemingly endless series of demands for information, offering nothing in return, as if there's some entitlement to have people disgorge the fruits of years of work. But almost all of the good researchers I've communicated with are willing to share information. It helps, of course, to establish your own credibility and willingness to assist, but even before that's accomplished, a demonstration of willingness to do your own work, and not just feed off the work of others, goes a long way."

Artist, teacher and visual consultant Bob Godfrey implores Titanic research novices to make sure they’re attempting an article that will "deliver something new in terms of information or interpretation." Godfrey adds that that "generally means referencing unpublished primary source material or at least sources which would not normally be found on the shelves of the average Titaniac."

He also suggests keeping abreast of what’s been published by others: "Somebody may have beaten you to it!"

Godfrey emphasizes the need for writers to double check facts, and to keep "a careful note of all sources, so that you (and perhaps your readers) will know where to find them for future reference." He further stresses that one of the more important lessons to learn for researchers is to be appreciative of any and all assistance received during their writing and to credit those individuals or institutions accordingly.

"Proof-read the draft carefully," Godfrey adds, "and show it to a preview audience of trusted and knowledgeable friends who may spot errors which you missed."

Daniel Klistorner, a 23-year-old writer who’s made a study of the interiors of White Star Line vessels, and whose investigative nose pinpointed the once-disputed location of Molly Brown’s cabin, says that researching primary sources is the "ultimate key to research."

When reading a book or article, Klistorner advises would-be researchers to consult the acknowledgements and credits.

"If they're interested in a certain topic and read something interesting in a book," says Klistorner, "the best thing for new researchers to do is to try and locate the original item, the source of the information –– the primary source."

Buying copies of rare photos in museums and libraries, Klistorner warns,"can be very expensive," but that "if someone is serious about researching a topic, they can always set aside some sort of budget to keep their research going."

Fellow Aussie Dave Gittins, editor of the website "All At Sea" says that genealogists interested in documenting Titanic passengers and crew should "get advice from a local genealogy club, of which there are many." He adds that, while the Internet is useful to a point for beginners, "you have to get to the paperwork, often via microfilm." Gittins also stresses the need for writers, particular those involved on the technical side of the Titanic story, to cross-check accepted facts.

"There’s the famous 66,000 tons displacement claim," he says. "It’s on a 1912 poster but it’s wrong. Everything should be cross-checked where possible."

For technical specs, Gittins recommends researchers read Lloyd’s Register of Ships thoroughly. "People get things wrong because they don’t understand how Lloyd’s measured ships," says Gittins. "The methods are in the book and should be studied."

Author and lecturer Kyrila Scully likewise insists on the importance of consulting "as many original sources as you can." She said that while this can be grueling, it’s imperative.

"If you cannot find original sources, contact authors or publishers to ask where they got them," she says. "Verify authenticity against original sources only, not secondary sources."

Scully recommends that researchers consider getting involved in a writers’ group: "Many are found at local bookstores, meeting once a month. Don't be afraid of critique. Listen to all advice and follow it. The more brutal the better. This will make you a better writer."

Finally she believes that determination is key to getting any research or writing project started. "Persevere and be patient," Scully says. "Some research can take years. Don’t expect instant results."

Part Two: Log on and Learn

As the many facets of research can’t be covered in a single article, the following overview for beginners has been confined to material accessible via the Internet.

Whether seeking to explore an untapped field of study or to reexamine old turf, history buffs can learn from the list of links provided below that they’re just as capable of getting a research project off the ground and running as any established author. More importantly, they will see that their findings and observations can make as much of a difference to the historical record.

"Never assume that someone, or some aspect of a subject, has been so well covered that all avenues of research have been exhausted," advises Inger Sheil.

"Researchers often wear ruts, taking the same approaches and utilizing the same data sources. Familiarize yourself with what records are available, and always go back to primary sources if at all possible. Even the most careful researchers can make errors in transcription, interpretation etc, so when using sources take your own fresh approach, even if it's 'old' material."

The way to rewarding research will require hard work and dedication. But in the words of Mark Baber, "Don’t give up!"

Where does one start online research on a person, place or event? In a word 'Google'

This search engine caches not only proper names but groupings of words and phrases. By punching a few keys specific texts and contexts can be located within seconds.

For researchers looking for vital statistics documentation, including birth, marriage and death certificates, immigration records, etc., the following sites are indispensable resources, offering searchable online databases and offline search services. Be mindful that dates are not always correct and that it might be necessary to enter a number of spelling variations of a name to find the correct individual.


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Comment and discuss

  1. Michael H. Standart

    Michael H. Standart said:

    This article is definately well worth a good read for the novice researcher. It covers the basics and has sound advice on pitfalls to avoid. For the article, just click on This Hotlink. Well done, Randy!

  2. Brandon Whited

    Brandon Whited said:

    A very informative and organized piece, Randy. It was a great idea of you to write this for beginning researchers. Great work! Cheers, -B.W.

  3. Vera R. Gillespie

    Vera R. Gillespie said:

    Bravo, Randy. It was very nice of you to share your information.

  4. Inger Sheil

    Inger Sheil said:

    Does exactly what it says on the tin...demystifies the research process. An invaluable guide with plenty of very practical advice and suggestions for novices, and a good refresher for everyone. Hopefully this excellent article will inspire the many talented individuals interested in this subject who are a bit at sea when it comes to where to begin investigating primary sources. There was certainly a need for this article, and Randy has fulfilled it admirably.

  5. Randy Bryan Bigham

    Randy Bryan Bigham said:

    Hi, everyone and thanks for the kudos. But this was a "Team ET" effort, starting with Phil Hind, whose idea it was to have a guide to help new researchers. Also, the experts I contacted each took time out of busy schedules to give their insight, which is the core of the piece. A more intellectual approach could have been taken, but I’m no academic, just a journalist. To Vera, especially, thank you. You are in our hearts. May God bless you. Randy

  6. Steven Hall

    Steven Hall said:

    Excellent article. If I could add - always listen carefully, prepare questions, stick to the subject. Always get someone to proof-read your work when finished. Most researchers started off knowing little, they had a fire in their belly for a particular aspect of the Titanic. Once Titanic has got you - she never lets you go. Lastly - be prepared to spend a few $$/s. You'll likely never get it back - though you'd be enriched by knowledge acquired. Try not to align yourself with any particular group of individuals — seek advice from everyone. If you are seen to side with one group, the others will appear to have shut the door in your face. I talk to everyone — I found that works best for me. Don’t talk badly about others — the Titanic community is very close. Bad news travels faster then good news and trust me, the walls appear to have ears. Lastly — when you post here; you’d be surprised to know who reads it. Steve Hall

  7. Michael H. Standart

    Michael H. Standart said:

    >>A more intellectual approach could have been taken, but I’m no academic, just a journalist.

  8. Dave Moran

    Dave Moran said:

    Thanks very much - highly informative and useful Your wise words apply to a much wider scope than you may realise - even unto other historical research. Warmest regards dave

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2005) Titanic Text : Demystifying historical study (Titanica!, ref: #4773, published 20 September 2005, generated 17th November 2022 11:37:26 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-research-guide.html