I have been approached numerous times over the years at a multitude of dive shows, conventions, museums, and other establishments throughout the country where I have presented seminars on various aspects of maritime history, concerning research. I have even been cornered on dive boats by fellow wreck divers intrigued (and often intimidated by) the intricacies of shipwreck research. I can often tell by how they ask their questions they are curious, but overwhelmed; interested, but anxious.
I admit, shipwreck research can be overwhelming, but with time, patience, an understanding of the basics, and a little luck, the feelings often change quickly from anxiety to excitement, especially when you make a find. And when you do make that find, most want to continue on their quest for additional information. Warning: Research Can Become Addictive.
Article and photos by Erik Petkovic
At a recent international dive show I was asked about the possibility of presenting a seminar on shipwreck research, or at a minimum, writing an article on how to conduct shipwreck research. My common, canned answer was this: research is as much about what to look for, as where to look. Knowing where to look is oftentimes more important than simply knowing your research question. You will never find what you are looking for if you do not know where to search. The research to which I am referring is not found on your Google machine or on a Wikipedia page.
Since that conversation I have received an abundance of texts, emails, and calls about writing on research. Although I have been toying with the possibility of taking on such a project for a number of years, the calls for doing so have grown significantly over the past year, including calls from fellow researchers.
I must admit writing an article for an audience about shipwreck research, at first, seemed like a daunting task, even though I am considered a seasoned researcher. The issue is the overwhelming (there’s that word again) amount of material to cover. As I was contemplating this article, it occurred to me that this task could not be done in one article – at least not appropriately. If you are one of my readers, you know I will not write a story without completely exhausting every avenue of research prior to putting pen to paper (and yes, I’m old school and write everything on note pads before typing). The prospect of writing a single article was out.
The next question was an obvious one – just like, How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? – I asked myself, How many articles will it take to appropriately and thoroughly cover the topic of shipwreck research without writing a book? The answer, just like the question, was obvious – more than one. But, how many is that?
One will not do. A couple is not nearly enough. A few is still far below what it would take. A handful is vague and will not suffice. A half dozen does not quite get us there.
You are probably asking yourself, well, why not just write a book? Great question. Not only am I constantly asked that question, but I ask myself that question – a lot. The answer is simple – I am currently writing three books (as of this series) and a multitude of articles. Research is in addition to all my writings. Add in a real day job, diving, and researching for other authors and explorers – you see where I am going with this. A research book is such a niche thing that it would take careful planning and writing to ensure I cover each topic appropriately. I plan my writing in advance (sometimes years in advance) and stick to my timelines as much as possible. If I add an additional book in the mix, I will never make my deadlines. I simply do not have time.
However, the demand for such a title is there. I am routinely and regularly contacted by fellow authors, researchers, and explorers seeking assistance in researching wrecks. I decided to table the thought of writing on this topic until I had a clearer sense of how I wanted to present the material.
Imagine this was a Hollywood script:
One year later appears on the lower right of the screen.
Screen fades to black.
Enter Scuba & H2O Adventures Magazine.
John Tapley was kind enough to review my latest book, Lake Erie Technical Wreck Diving Guide, for the magazine (see August 2019 issue). While John and I were conversing, we broached the topic of guest writing for the magazine. I was immediately intrigued. I like the diverse topics the magazine offers. The layout is fantastic.
As I am a wreck diver and shipwreck researcher, my natural inclination would have been to write about wrecks. However, the magazine has a resident wreck writer – my friend and legend, Gene Peterson. John and I tossed around several ideas including a column on maritime history. My interest was piqued.
While I was standing on the beach looking at the boiler of the wreck of the Oriental protruding out of the water along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, John mentioned a yearlong series on shipwreck research. That was it. This is exactly what I needed and exactly what I have been looking for – much more than one article and less than a book. The fires were lit.
I returned home a couple days later, opened my shipwreck research topic folder, and immediately outlined a 10-part series on shipwreck research. I was excited the magazine accepted my submission. This has been a long time in the making and I am excited to share this with Scuba & H2O Adventures Magazine.
Part One: Introduction/Overview of the Series
You now know how this series came to fruition. Now, what to expect in this series. This series will cover the basics of shipwreck research and some universal research principles that are applicable across all genres and specialties of research. This article serves as the first part. I will use actual research I conducted to demonstrate key principles of how to conduct research. You will not only learn what to do, but also what not to do – sometimes this is more important. My hard lessons learned will be passed on to you.
There are additional aspects of research which are more advanced and require a basic understanding of research (as well as some research projects under one’s belt). I will reserve that for another time.
Part Two: Research Library Essentials
Every researcher, no matter what discipline of study, needs a basic library. This portion of the series will cover the essentials for conducting shipwreck research. No, I am not referring to pencils and paper, but to literary references which can be used to look up basic information about your topic. This is a springboard from which other information can be gleaned to point the researcher in the correct direction.
Part Three: Newspapers
There are many nuances to searching newspapers and they will be discussed in detail. Oftentimes, newspapers were the only primary means of reporting a maritime incident. These incidents and accidents routinely appeared in local newspapers before being picked up by the larger newspapers of the time. Newspaper accounts have differed. Newspaper accounts have been over-embellished. Still, newspapers are essential for the shipwreck researcher. Where to find historic newspapers, the intricacies of searching newspapers, newspaper search engines, and much more will be detailed in this part.
Part Four: Primary v. Secondary Research
Do you know the difference between primary research and secondary or even tertiary research? This is an important distinction that must be discussed prior to going any farther. Hint: an internet search engine is not primary research, and neither is looking in the book on your bookshelf.
Part Five: National Archives
How to navigate the National Archives. This can be overwhelming itself. Did you know the National Archives is not one building? Did you know the National Archives is a system of cataloging and storing records in over a dozen US States? Most people do not know of the existence of these Regional Archives. I will go in depth (pun intended as this is a dive magazine) to help clarify and simplify the beast that is the National Archives.
Part Six: Museums and Libraries
Believe it or not, the National Archives does not hold everything on every topic. Oftentimes, only small, local museums and libraries have the holdings a researcher has so desperately been searching. Non-governmental libraries and museums along with the Library of Congress and other international renowned museums such as the Mariners Museum will be featured in this article.
Part Seven: Online Sources
Sorry to all the millennials who will read this, but not everything can be found on the internet. However, there are some really great online sources for obtaining the information you need, which can put you on the path to success.
Part Eight: Photos/Images/Copyright
In the age where photos and images are routinely “borrowed” off the internet because they can be easily located and passed off as one’s own work, we will be discussing the proper procedure for citing and crediting images. This part will also delve into where to locate non-Google, non-search engine material.
Copyright can be tricky, especially when it comes to images. I will make it less confusing for you.
Part Nine: FOIA
The Freedom of Information Act aka FOIA. I could write a book on FOIA, the process, the government road blocks agencies attempt to and purposefully put in your way, etc., etc. The FOIA process can be so intimidating, many researchers simply do not attempt. However, I have been very successful in obtaining records through the FOIA process. They say patience is a virtue. That is very true when it comes to FOIA.
Part Ten: Tips, Tricks and Techniques
All those mistakes I made while researching, lessons I learned along the way, what to do, what not to do, the little nuances, and the finer points of research will be the focus of this article. Something so minute as misspelling the name of a wreck or a passenger, even by one letter, can yield no results. Don’t see an article in a newspaper about a maritime disaster you know occurred at a specific place and time? This end of the series article will help.