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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! 🙂