2 – Searching Literature

Part 2 – Searching Literature

In the first piece in this series, I stressed the need for inspiration in choosing a subject for research. One of those inspirations may well be found during a “reading” of the “literature”. The term “literature review” expresses one essential element in academic research: determining what has already been written, so that the originality of your research, and its position in existing knowledge, can be established. “Literature search” is a part of this process, but the term “literature” may be confusing in this connection. “Literature” used to mean all that has been written (in academic research, all that has been written and authenticated in academic contexts, notably journals). The textbooks on research that set much store by this may mislead when it comes to waterways history.

“Literature”, as some textbooks acknowledge, means more than what has been written and published in paper form; for instance, some journals (maybe all, at some future point) now exist only in electronic form. Much has been written in forms that are hard to evaluate, or to reference: websites, weblogs, contributions to email fora and newsgroups, even Facebook groups and sites. The same maxim applies now as when Internet-accessible writings began: there is much utter rubbish, alongside misleading, fallacious, deluded, (often) malicious and poisonous materials to be found “published” in cyberspace. However, there is also much thoughtful and illuminating material, and discussions that might never find their way into a mainstream journal or book. The problem is how to evaluate such material as sources of information and analysis – something that I will leave to a later piece.

A moment of dogma: it would be unusual for any serious search through waterways “literature” not to consider, if not begin with, the entries in The Canals of the British Isles series edited by Charles Hadfield. Even if it is concluded that nothing in these volumes sheds any light, they should be considered….

Beyond these, it has to be conceded that there is no established waterways history field in the academic sense; no schools of analysis that are reflected in a developing literature. Many might say that this is entirely a good thing; although I am not so sure about that, there is much scope for those whose prime qualification lies in enthusiasm alone.

You may find that there is simply nothing written about your chosen subject, especially if it is obscure. Picking subjects at random, I doubt if much has been written about the later history of dredging hoppers, or biographies of most people working in boatbuilding yards. A search of the literature is necessary to establish this, and, if so, to show that your enquiry is original.
Conversely, it may be that your query is entirely answered by the literature, and there your personal research will end. This may be the case if you are simply seeking a piece of information, such as the ownership of a specific boat at a particular period. It may be that you will decide to write about this, to highlight the significance of that information. In more complex enquiries, it may well be that some parts of your enquiry will be answered in the literature, but other parts will not, and your writing may seek to synthesise these.

Often, as research progresses, there will be a need to seek out new literature sources – so this is not a stage in a linear process that can be safely left behind. What may feel unforgivable, however, is to develop research only to find that the most obvious exposition of your enquiry is available in an obvious source that you have failed to investigate. I can think of instances (which shall remain nameless) in which I have done this myself, but also an example of the converse. The latter concerned an article that I wrote for Waterways World in 1990, about the disastrous trip by Robert Aickman and friends through Standedge Tunnel in 1948, which seems to have been assiduously ignored by later investigators.

One bland assumption behind the term “searching literature” is that sources are readily available. However, you may find yourself searching for the literature rather than searching through the literature! Whilst you may have a personal library of waterways history books (and journals!), if not, you will need to consider libraries. Public libraries have an annoying tendency to rid themselves of “old” books, so that the excellent new Liverpool City Library has only one copy of a Charles Hadfield book, English Rivers and Canals (1945). Cheshire West and Chester Libraries have a better collection, including The Canals of North West England at Ellesmere Port Library. This is only a short distance away from the best library of waterways books, at our own Archives, and this may well be the best place to begin.

In the next articles, I will discuss the evaluation of sources on the literature – the second part of the process known as “literature review”. Once again, this is my approach, but not necessarily anyone else’s!

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