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Librarian tricks to find material on the daily life of a sailor in the 18th century

Sail was still the predominant means of propulsion until the late 1800s and the advent of steam engines and early Vancouver harbour scenes are resplendent with sailboats

I’ve been trying to pin down some details – gritty stories and actual day-in-the-life specifics of a young seaman working on a sailboat in the late 1800s – what they ate, what work they did, where they slept, what they did in the lulls and anything about pets or children onboard.

But I’d been having trouble finding much that was useful. I did keyword searches on the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) using the terms sailing and sailboat and history and “daily life” and came up with a lot of current information about how to sail, where to sail, and contemporary sailboats in general with a bit of historical information thrown in about the heyday of sailing and the advent of steamships in the late 1800s, but still not finding quite what I was looking for.

When you’re doing historical research in particular you may need to think about some older and even antiquated terms for the activity or concept you’re searching for, though I had a similar challenge trying to come up with just the right search term when carrying out research on a (current) aspect of environmental science as well.

Finding the right term is like finding the right key to the lock and is sometimes the first step in finding useful material. Try turning phrases around in your head us, brainstorming different terminology for your subject, and trying this keyword-to subject-heading research in order to come up with the right term that will bring you success.

Before Google and keywords changed the world of online searching in the late 1990s libraries catalogued material using a thesaurus to ensure that all librarians were using consistent terms for classifying books and related material in different formats.

This meant that when terminology migrated (from ecology to envirormentalism for example) related material would still fall under the same classification heading and researchers wouldn’t have to look up multiple terms for the same thing.

Subject headings originate in the classification thesaurus used by libraries (usually Dewey or Library of Congress) and follow a rigid format as you’ll see from my research example, below.

But now, when you’re carrying out research, you can use a combination of keyword searching and the more traditional subject classification searching to pinpoint more specific or obscure information. The subject classification will encompass books and other resources that use terms you might not think of.

For example in my research on the daily life and conditions of sailors in the 19th century I did the following keyword searches.

sailing

and

sailing history

I then chose a book from my results and scrolled down to find the library subject headings under which it was classified. On the Vancouver Public Library site, subject headings appear on the far right, a little down from the book title, and are hyperlinked.

Using the keyword “Sailing” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing”

Using the keywords “Sailing history” gave the Subject heading of “Sailing ships pictorial works”

So I clicked on “Sailing ships pictorial works” to see what other books have been put into that classification, but they were mostly about yaching and racing, neither of which I was interested in.

So I tried another tack (pardon the pun)!

Using the keywords “sailing daily life” – gave me no results

and

Using the keyword “sailors – pictorial works” brought up books with photos of sailors, a few novels, and some analysis of gender issues among sailors.

Finally I remembered the word ‘seafaring” and once I entered that term I hit paydirt because suddenly there was a plethora of books on the daily life of a sailor aboard a sailing ship in the 1800s, from the work they carried out in stormy weather, in port, and while in the calm waters, the doldrums of southern South America, near the Magellan Strait, to the fo’cs’le where they lived and slept, to the food they ate.

So if you aren’t finding the material you need, try thos little librarian trick of starting with keywords and then looking at subject headings of books that come up in the results that yield other sources on the subject you’re looking for.

Of course you can always ask a librarian for help. They will probe you for specifics and relevant terminology in this same way as I’ve just explained, but it’s always heavenly to have someone else to work on it with.

Don’t resort to being a mere mortal and thinking you can do everything yourself because it will save you a lot of time and frustration to use the professionals who know these things and more, so well.

All hands on deck! šŸ™‚

British Columbia history, Historical documents, Historical novel, Historical research, Historiography, Novel excerpt, Real Estate, Research, Research Tip, social history, Writers

Port Moody passed over in favour of Vancouver

 

grayscale photography of railway surrounded by trees

Photo by Thomas Craig on Pexels.com

“The new town, called Vancouver, will no doubt be of some detriment to Port Moody”

 

This quote, comes from the 1887 BC Directory’sĀ introduction to Port Moody, the city that had its designation as the terminus for the national railway pulled out from under it that year, in favour of Vancouver.

Rampant speculation, investment and enthusiasm ran high in the few years prior as Port Moody prepared for the onslaught of growth and investor interest that would come with the rail terminus.

But a syndicate of the CPR, headed by CPR Vice-president William Van Horne negotiated a deal with Premier William SmitheĀ  to bring the terminus to Granville (later Vancouver) in exchange for 6000 acres of land.

Interestingly, title to this land went not to the company, but to two of its board members, Donald Smith and Richard Angus.

And you have to be suspicious when, a few years later, Smith and Angus, along with other Victoria government officials, businessmen, and politicians earned spectacular profits on real estate parceling and selling of that land.

This is an important piece of Vancouver’s earliest settler history. The speculative nature of real estate profiteering from the 1880sĀ  established much of our local politics and business interests to this day.

Ironically, the world view that engendered this display of greed and avarice entirely dismissed any First Nations claims to this land in the first place.

In the novel I’m working on, set in Vancouver 1884-1913, I’m exploring these and related issues from a young settler woman’s perspective.

Reference Tip

I can’t tell you how much I love the old directories to get a snapshot of the moment from that time’s perspective and countless “reading between the lines” possibilities that they provide.

I consulted the early BC Directories to learn more about Port Moody when one of my characters wants to get out of Granville (later Vancouver) because he can’t stand the boredom and backwardness of it. I have him weighing the pros and cons of moving to New Westminster or Port Moody in the months before the final CPR announcement in favour of Vancouver.