Home Dive into History Dive Into History Series Part Four: Primary Research

Dive Into History Series Part Four: Primary Research

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USCG Station Erie Station Log for the search of the wreck of the George J. Whelan

Most serious wreck divers I know and dive with take the subject of research seriously. Very seriously. As do I. If I were a valley girl this is where I would say, “Like, totally seriously.” Research and our methods are sacred. We not only discover shipwrecks and re-write historical events, but we add to the historical record. The key point here is adding to the historical record.

By Erik Petkovic

This will be the shortest of the 10-part series, however, I ask you do not confuse article length with importance. Even though this is the shortest, this in some ways, is the most important of the series as there is an important distinction between what is considered research and what it not research.

In the last two installments we reviewed research library essentials and newspapers. The former dived into those essential volumes necessary to start your shipwreck research project. The information in those resources should be used to point your research in the right direction. The latter article discussed the importance of researching newspapers and the methods of being successful in your search.

Before we jump in deep water and discuss the National Archives, museums, libraries, online sources, the ever important topic of copyright, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we must distinguish the difference between primary and secondary research. There is a difference and it is key.

NTSB Accident Report for the loss of the tug Duke Luedtke

What is Primary Research?

Sometimes it is easier to define what something is not, rather than to define what something is. The end result of primary research is to add something new to the historical record.

Primary Research is NOT grabbing a book off your bookshelf at home.

Primary research is searching for materials which may not have ever seen the light of day. Research is reading reels of microfilm. For all of the Millennials reading this, yes, microfilm existed, and yes microfilm is still around in some research centers. Research is discovering that testimony or rare document which no one has previously unearthed. This cannot be done from the confines of your bookshelf, unless of course, you have some ultra-rare antiquarian, leather-bound book collection which cannot be found elsewhere. If you are one who possesses this ultra-rare antiquarian, leather-bound book collection, you most undoubtedly have your own reading room with decanters of high end whiskey. In that case, invite me – I’m coming over.

Primary Research is NOT reading about a shipwreck before your dive.

Reading a book or a chapter about a wreck prior to jumping in the water does not constitute research – it’s called reading. I will not belabor the point any further.

Primary Research is NOT done by looking at Wikipedia.

Sorry to burst the bubble on this one. Despite what some people may think, just because something is on the internet, does not make it true. Primary research in and of itself cannot be conducted on the Internet, however, portions of it can be conducted online, such as identifying the existence of certain record collections. More on this in the articles concerning the National Archives and online sources.

Primary Research is NOT reading a handful of books and regurgitating information from those books.

In reality, this is a school book report or term paper where no original ideas or new information is offered. At best, this is secondary research, but even that is being kind. True research cannot be done by reading others’ works, compiling that information, and repackaging it as your own. If it were that easy I would write more books!

Primary Research is NOT easy.

Proper research is very time consuming. Proper research can be frustrating and filled with set-backs, trials, and tribulations. However, proper research is very rewarding especially when you locate that one piece of information for which you have been searching.

Primary Research is NOT cheap.

Primary research oftentimes entails travel to a museum, library, archive, or other repository as what you are looking for is most likely not at your local library and is definitely not found online. I have many friends who live in the Northeast US who look for logbooks. These logbooks are oftentimes located in the National Archives. This, at a minimum, necessitates travel to Washington DC. If you are not willing to travel, you can pay a researcher a fee to locate the logbook for you, make copies, and then mail to you. Neither option is cheap. However, if you want to keep your research project quiet, you will need to do it yourself.

If you make the decision to travel to the museum, library, archive, or other repository where your gem is located, do not forget your debit card or bag of quarters as you will need to pay for copies. Oh, and photographs usually cost more.

Primary Research is NOT quick.

As stated above, research takes time. Research is not as it is depicted in the movies or in the documentaries you watch where the researcher opens up the brand new manila file folder and the long lost piece of paper is sitting there. You may very well have to dig through boxes and comb through hundreds and hundreds of papers. Things get really interesting when what you are looking for is not where it is supposed to be, either from being misplaced or mismarked. In research, “X” never ever marks the spot.

A previously classified report on the U-118 German U-Boat

What is Secondary Research?

Secondary research is using what others have previously researched, written and compiled. The important distinction between primary and secondary research is that nothing new is added to the historical record through secondary research. If you read any of my books and used information from those books to write an article or a summary of a shipwreck in your dive club newsletter, that is secondary research. Even though the book was written after conducting primary research and written from primary sources, your use of my book would be considered secondary research.

Can Secondary Research be useful?

The answer is simple – yes. Secondary research can be invaluable to learn the basics of what you are trying to research further. Secondary research can give you the who, what, when, where, and other basics without doing much work on your own. This information can give you a good start on your research project.

Do I use Secondary Research?

I absolutely use secondary research in a few different ways. However, I mostly use secondary research for sources. The one part of a book I read religiously and repeatedly is the bibliography or works cited or suggested reading. Why? Good question. I simply look for the citations and sources for the information I am researching. Once I make a list of the sources from the book I am reading, I go to those books. I do the same thing – open those books to the bibliography, copy down those sources, go to those books, rinse and repeat. I trace sources as far back as I can in order to find the earliest known source or account. This is an easy way to find original sources. It sounds elementary and it probably is, however, it works.

In order to discuss the remaining topics in the series, it was necessary to first make the distinction between primary and secondary research. There is a significant difference between the two types of research. In reality, one is research and the other is summarizing another’s work. It was important to make the distinction now, as the rest of the series is about where and how to conduct real research.

In the next article we dive into the beast that is the National Archives. Everyone knows the National Archives houses the Nation’s founding documents, however, the National Archives is so much more than one building in Washington DC. Our journey together of diving into history is just getting started.