If you have been reading this entire series, you no doubt know by now I am not a fan of internet research. As previously stated, the goal of shipwreck research is to add something new to the historical record. This cannot be done from the internet. Shipwreck researchers are not writing a book report or a short school paper where someone else’s ideas and words are shortened, summarized, and repackaged into their own. This is regurgitated information and the internet is full of regurgitated information, as well as information which is flat out wrong. This type of information does not constitute primary research, and thus cannot add anything new to the historical record.
By Erik Petkovic
Even though I spend more time embedded in libraries and research facilities and books than most, this does not mean that I do not use the internet. After all, this is 2020 folks! However, I use the internet to facilitate my research – usually at the beginning stages of my project as outlined below. The key word thus far is facilitate. I can facilitate my research project online, but I cannot complete my research project online.
This is a good place for this part of the series. We previously discussed NARA and other research libraries and facilities. The next segment, Part Eight, will dive into photo and picture sources. Sandwiched in between NARA and photo sources is online research. Certain online websites can help you gather some basic information you can use to know where to look next. These sites can also help you procure photos for your research project. This article will touch upon some things we previously discussed (with an added online component), and some things we will discuss in the next issue.
The best way to properly explain this process is to walk you through an example of how to conduct a research project using what we have previously discussed (books, reference materials, etc.) and combining that information with online searches.
Prior to the example, I must stress two important points about internet research.
Do not use Wikipedia for your research. Read those seven words with lots of emphasis – imagine in all caps, bold, and with a thick underline. That is how much I stress that sentence. I could end this section, and possibly this entire article, with those seven words. However, I will explain in depth (yes, pun always intended).
I recently gave a shipwreck research seminar to a group of divers and historians. One of the questions I received was about Wikipedia. My answer was a quick, No! A follow-up question was proposed to me: “Isn’t Wikipedia an online encyclopedia?”
Based on the question I could tell this person was actually curious as to the merits of Wikipedia. It is not a bad question. In reality, it is a question lots of people have, but just like when you were sitting in your least favorite class in school, you are afraid to ask the question.
Wikipedia purports itself to be an encyclopedia. Obviously, nowadays, the door to door encyclopedia salesman is a thing of the past. The online encyclopedia has replaced the expensive, although vast, bound encyclopedia volumes. Although Wikipedia seems endless, there are some significant issues with using Wikipedia for your research.
The first issue is that Wikipedia is written by volunteers, not paid professionals who are experts in their respective fields. The following is straight from Wikipedia’s webpage: “Wikipedia is written collaboratively by largely anonymous volunteers who write without pay. Anyone with internet access can write and make changes to Wikipedia articles…Users can contribute anonymously, under a pseudonym, or, if they choose to, with their real identity.” Traditional encyclopedias, journals, etc. are written by professionals who do not hide their identity. Although they have checks and balances in place, there is no way to check on every edit made to Wikipedia. How can one trust something that is written by those who are not professionals in the field in which they are writing, and is written by those who hide their identity? This leads directly into the second issue with Wikipedia.
The second major issue with using Wikipedia is that it is not always accurate. Given the fact that so much is written by anonymous non-experts, it is not possible to be accurate. Agencies who have conducted independent analysis have graded Wikipedia to be approximately 80 percent accurate. Traditional encyclopedias written by true professionals registered a 96 percent accuracy rate. This is a big difference.
Wikipedia may be fine for a grade school or middle school report, but not for historical research where accuracy counts.
If I cannot find it on the internet, it does not exist.
Insert that emoji of the guy with his head down and his hand on his head.
Unfortunately, this statement is a product of the world in which we live. Digital this. Digital that. Instant availability of just about everything. The world is literally at one’s fingertips with what is available online. However, just because it is not on the internet, does not mean it does not exist. This is the essence of research. The quest for knowledge and the quest for something which has been lost to history. Good research is not quick and good research takes time. If everything I was looking for was found online, I would write more books, and so would every other historian.
Even though not everything is available on the internet, there are some great places online one can use in the beginning stages of their research project. These sites can help you gather some additional information before making the trek to a research facility, library, or other institution to complete your research.
Prior to setting out on your research adventure, it is important to have a goal or reason for your research. Specificity does not matter at this point. Simple is the way to begin.
For my research example, I am diving the U-352 German U-boat this summer and want to learn more about the sinking of the submarine. I am choosing to dive into history and not to read a book chapter on the submarine. I want to see the documents, touch the history, and learn something about the men involved – the US crew and the German prisoners of war.
Now that I have my objective, and having read Dive Into History Series Part Two: Research Library Essentials, I pick up my copy of Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks and search for the U-352. Since the book is in alphabetical order, and since I remember by alphabet from kindergarten, I search the book and locate U-352 on page 148. In addition to the type of vessel, tonnage, year built, the book states U-352 was a war loss on May 9, 1942, and is located 23 1/2 miles off Cape Lookout Light, NC. The important information is the date.
Keeping in mind what I read in Part Two of this series, I look in Gary Gentile’s Shipwrecks of North Carolina South and locate U-352. Gary confirms the date of loss I located in Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks and lists the cause of sinking as depth-charged by USCG Icarus. I have now confirmed the date and discovered how the submarine was lost.
Now that I have the date of U-352’s loss and know how it was lost, I can proceed with some basic internet research. My next step is to look at NARA, but I am not sure if NARA possesses what I am looking for. In lieu of going to Washington DC (at least at this step in the research project) I can search NARA online.
I go to archives.gov and click on “Research Our Records”. I type “U-352” into the search engine and wait for the search results. The good news is that there are 27,115 results. The bad news is that there are 27,115 results – and the overwhelming majority of them have nothing to do with our submarine.
After filtering the results to include only those documents with dates in the 1940’s (because we know the submarine was lost in 1942), a record entitled “Interrogations From German U-Boat and Raider Survivors, 1941-1945” appears in the top few results. Opening the record reveals that none of this content has been digitized and therefore cannot be read online. But, I am not worried because I read Erik’s Dive Into History Series Part Five: NARA and know I only need a few key pieces of information in order to request the records I want to view.
Based on the online record, I now have the following identifiers I need to request a record pull from NARA:
ARC Identifier: 1011705
Creator: Department of the Navy. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Intelligence Division
Record Group: 38
Location: Archives II
Again, I am facilitating my research online by gathering data I can use to get the information I want. I am now armed with everything I need to request this information from NARA, whether in person or ordering the records via email.
I have some informational to where to locate the prisoner documents, but I want to see how the submarine was sent to the bottom. The only way to do this is to look for the USCG Icarus logbook.
My next step is to visit the USCG Historian to locate the Icarus logbook. Again, to keep one from traveling to Washington DC to visit the office in person, I can conduct a simple query via the USCG Historian website.
One of their Frequently Asked Questions is “How do you obtain a copy of a Coast Guard, lighthouse, or life-saving service logbook?” All logbooks from 1790 until 20 years prior to your query are housed at NARA I. They do provide a link for USCG Logbooks. Now I must head back to NARA online.
Using the link the USCG Historian provided for the location of USCG Logbooks, I scroll down until we find what I need – US Coast Guard Log Books 1942-1947 (Record Group 26). This series is arranged by year, then by vessel name.
After choosing 1942 (the year Icarus sank U-352) I search the alphabetical listing of vessels and locate Icarus in Box 67.
I now have the information as to where and how to locate the logbook from USCG Icarus on the day she sank U-352.
There are two paths to choose from. The first involves going to NARA and pulling the records in person. The second path involves paying NARA to pull the records for me and paying NARA for copies. Either way, I just successfully used the internet to locate the records I need to further my research!
Part Eight Preview
In next month’s issue, we will dive into photos, images, and 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 cover the confusing copyright laws.