Home Dive into History Dive into History Part Six: Museums & Libraries

Dive into History Part Six: Museums & Libraries

City of Cleveland III 1907

In the last article we dived into the beast that is the National Archives (NARA). There are three important points readers should have taken away from that article. First, NARA is not one building in Washington D.C. – it is a system of archival holdings across the country. The regional NARA facilities are often overlooked, but hold significant amounts of material for the shipwreck researcher. I use the NARA Regional Archives quite often for US Coast Guard logbooks and station logs.

Article and photos courtesy Erik Petkovic

Second, although shipwreck research, or any research for that matter, can be overwhelming and intimidating at any NARA facility, NARA does have guides and templates in place to help the researcher. The employees are very good at what they do. They are experts. But just like your teenager who will not ask for help while you are watching the debacle unfold, sometimes you cannot help them unless they ask. If you ask, they will help. Remember, every researcher delving into their project in the NARA research room was once a first timer too. Do not be afraid to ask. Otherwise, like Marcus Brody from Indiana Jones, who once got lost in his own museum, you will too!

Last, and maybe the most important point from Part Five, is the fact that NARA does not have everything. It is very important to remember with as large as NARA is, NARA only holds an estimated one or two percent of records! What about the other 98 percent? Good question. Unfortunately, much of that information has not been cataloged or has been lost or destroyed. However, great places to look for that information are libraries, museums, and other non-government facilities.

Library of Congress

A good place to start after NARA is the Library of Congress (LOC). I could have, and maybe should have, done an entire article on the LOC. The LOC is no ordinary library. For starters, it is the largest library in the world and has over 168 million items in its catalogue. Like NARA, the LOC is not just one building. The LOC is comprised of three buildings all situated in Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. – the Thomas Jefferson Building, the James Madison Building, and the John Adams Building.

LOC Logo

The LOC houses the world’s largest collection of cartographic material with an astounding 5.6 million maps. When I am researching shipwrecks I always attempt to locate a map from the same time period as when the ship foundered. Maps have continuously evolved with the use of the latest technology since the first map was created. I do not want to see what the area looks like today where the ship foundered, I want to see what it looked like when the ship foundered. A time period map not only helps bring context to what you are researching, it looks cool too. Ancient, rare, archival, historic – whatever word you want to use to describe old maps – displayed an amazing amount of art. If you are looking for an old map, chances are the LOC Geography and Map Division in the James Madison Building has the map.

Believe it or not, you cannot always find everything on the Internet – not even in Google Books. The good news is that the LOC has the largest collection of rare books in North America and also has nearly 73 million manuscripts in their holdings. The rare books are housed in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room in the Thomas Jefferson Building and the manuscripts are found in the James Madison Building. These are not books and manuscripts you can find at your local library or ones you can even request via the intra-library loan program. But, if you are at NARA, it is worth the one-half mile trip to the LOC to see some of these gems.

The LOC has a very robust newspaper collection as we previously discussed in Dive Into History Part Three. I will not belabor the point here, but if you need a newspaper, this is the one stop shop.

The LOC’s collection of microforms and images is impressive. We will dive into the intricacies of images and copyright in a future article. I will provide much more detail on LOC’s image collection at that time.

One thing that is all too often overlooked by shipwreck researchers (and I consider this a significant oversight) is the use of law books. I can see everyone’s facial expressions now with the inquisitive looks. Yes, law books. I can hear people mumble: I’m not reading a law book. I usually do not like reading law books either, but law books offer a tremendous amount of detail which may be difficult to find elsewhere. No, I am not talking about admiralty law, or salvage law, or international law. I am talking about court decisions. You are most undoubtedly asking yourself: why would I want to read a book filled with opinions and decisions of judges?  Great question. Here’s your answer – because most shipwreck disasters ended up in some sort of litigation.

Whether you were a widow of a lost sailor on a vessel or if you were the owner of a vessel which was lost by collision or negligence of another vessel, you would file a lawsuit. If you filed a lawsuit, a judge would hear your case. In order to make a decision, the judge would have to get all the facts. In order to get all the facts of the case, the judge would have investigators gather all the facts (which includes access to all statements and insurance claims). All of this information, which would oftentimes go into great detail, would be provided in the court’s decision. Savvy? As luck would have it, the LOC is the largest law library in the world and their collection of law books is in the James Madison Building.

An important point about the LOC. Unlike at NARA where the workers are researchers, the workers at the LOC are librarians. There is a difference between a librarian and a research specialist. The folks at NARA can guide you in your research, whereas the folks at the LOC are more well versed in library science. The people at the LOC are great, but they cannot do the research for you. NARA is a research facility. The LOC is a library which can be used for research.

Steamship Historical Society of America

The Steamship Historical Society of America (SSHSA) has a treasure-trove of information and material involving…guess what?… steamships. The SSHSA has a large collection of maritime reference material (books). A lot of these books can be found elsewhere. However, the SSHSA  has a special collection of blueprints, ship plans, drawings, etc. This is the place to go if you are looking to learn how a ship was constructed, if you are in need of deck plans for a vessel you are researching or diving, or if you are researching early steamship construction.


The SSHSA has an astounding and impressive collection of images. They have tens of thousands of images. However, you will not find images of sailing vessels here, only steamships – as their name implies. If you are looking for a photo of a vessel which did not move under sail, contact the SSHSA.

Great Lakes Research Facilities

There are an abundance of local libraries, historical centers, small town history museums, and niche research facilities in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes deserves its own special section in this article as the Great Lakes is the single largest freshwater graveyard of ships in the world. Shipwrecks are found each year throughout the Great Lakes. The wrecks often make national headlines as they are pristine museums untouched by salt or human hand. One would be amazed at what can be found at some of these small local museums and libraries. However, due to space limitations, I will focus on some of the larger research facilities which I have used with much success.

Wisconsin Marine Historical Society

WMHS is fantastic and is where I first turn when I conduct research on any ship that sailed the Great Lakes. The staff has always been helpful, they respond immediately to email requests, and are well organized. WHMS is housed within the Milwaukee Public Library in Milwaukee, WI. Their shipwreck files are full of photos, newspaper clippings, hand written correspondence, art, vessel enrollments, etc.


Historical Collections of the Great Lakes

HCGL is part of Bowing Green State University in Bowling Green, OH. HCGL is a haven for photographs of any vessel which ever plied on the Great Lakes. With well over 100,000 images, HCGL most likely has that rare photo you need. They have a massive collection of enrollments, ship plans, drawings, charts, manuscripts, etc.  HCGL has very user friendly finding aids available on their website.

Great Lakes Historical Society

GLHS operates the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, OH. GLHS has vast holding of books, manuscripts, deck logs, vessel plans, newspapers, other Great Lakes ephemera, and images. GLHS also publishes Inland Seas – a quarterly journal about Great Lakes history.


Naval Heritage and History Command

NHHC was formerly known as the Naval Historical Center (NHC). NHHC is the historian’s repository of everything US Navy located at the Washington Naval Yard in Washington DC. NHHC is oftentimes overlooked as a research facility as I am oftentimes shocked to learn that fellow researchers do not know much about NHHC. Part of their lack of knowledge about this facility is that it was difficult to access due to the facility being housed in an active naval yard. However, it has become easier for researchers to access NHHC.


NHHC can be difficult to navigate as their many buildings are spread out over an entire campus. Appointments are needed for each division one wants to visit. As an example, I am currently researching a submarine for a new book. I need access to records, reports and photographs. Everything in NHHC is compartmented. I need records from the Main Archives, Photo Archives, and Archaeology Branch. As a result, I need to correspond with each separate division. NHHC is run by the government and as such can be difficult. When I need to visit the facility to conduct research, I need to make separate appointments with each branch and try to do so on the same day during a certain timeframe. One can see how this quickly becomes difficult to manage.

However, NHHC has a plethora of information and should not be overlooked for anything naval related – even foreign naval. More on NHHC will be discussed in the online sources article.

The Mariners’ Museum

What’s the old adage? We saved the best for last. It is true in this article. The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA, is the best. Period. This place is so phenomenal Congress designated the Mariners’ Museum as America’s National Maritime Museum.


The Mariners’ Museum collection is vast. There is not even a word to describe how extensive their collection really is as it is that massive. So we will have to settle for the Mariners’ Museum having the largest maritime history collection in the Western Hemisphere.

They have well over 2,000,000 maritime history items consisting of rare books, manuscripts, maps, charts, magazines, and newspapers. The Mariners’ Museum has over 600,000 photographs – featuring everything from early whaling vessels to the Great Lakes, early diving and salvaging to the Spanish American War, and everything in between.

The people at the library are top notch and are extremely well versed. Whether you research in person or query the staff via email, they are prompt and very helpful.

Part Seven Preview

I have written multiple times throughout this series that not everything can be found on the online. However, there are some great online resources which researchers should use in their quest for whatever shipwreck project they are working. We will dive into the essential online sources in the next issue as well as some do’s and don’ts when conducting online research.