3 – Reviewing Literature

Part 3 – Reviewing Literature

The second piece in this series considered one part of “literature review”, the searching of (or for) published sources. Formal “literature reviews” apply mostly to academic research, in which it is essential to position your proposed research within existing knowledge. It is, I concede, valuable to establish some sort of continuity with present knowledge, in the hope that it will be enhanced by your research. However, much waterways history research simply uncovers and adds details, rather than develops a field of knowledge; my piece about Norman Anglin in 2013’s Waterways Journal is an example. A literature review would have been out of place in such work.

Despite this, a formally conducted and written literature review can assist some research. It may serve to set the proposed and presented research within existing published work. This pre-empts the response by a reader as to whether the work is original, and how it relates to what has already been published. For instance, there is growing evidence about the kind of people who became shareholders in waterways concerns, and new studies could be proposed to consider the implications of this data. Any research would have to consider J R Ward’s classic The Finance of Canal Building in the Eighteenth Century, amid more obscure published work. This specific literature would benefit from a broader setting, within studies of shareholding in early industrial enterprises, and from studies of canal companies; further, yet wider studies of the development of corporate economic structures would assist. If a new study was to be carried out, the consideration of broader literature would enable an analysis rather than solely description of canal shareholdings. It would then be possible for others to consider alternative interpretations, so that the study go beyond the narrower field of canal or transport history. (Whether such studies are under way, I do not know, although there is a new database of waterways shareholders).

The review of literature is more than a listing of publications. It may well attempt to evaluate which published sources are more helpful, reliable and valid. Academic reviews tend to focus on publications that cite their sources, often in extensive footnotes or endnotes, although this is not always essential.

One problem with the idea of literature review (certainly a formal one) is that it can deter a researcher from getting started with the material that has excited interest. Often an exploration of the literature will need to be carried out while original materials are being studied. It is possible that, as research progresses, it becomes clear that much has already been considered and published, so that an early review can obviate much wasted work, or inspire a change in direction or emphasis. One problem may be that research is proceeding into the same area (a review will not help here), or that after publication takes place, it is revealed that existing publications have not been consulted (there are examples of both).

Literature reviews could (and perhaps should) stand as examples of research on their own. I am sometimes asked what should be researched in the future, and I am often deterred from answering because my own knowledge of what has been published, and what sources are available, is limited. Someone could carry out very useful research by bringing together and summarising what has been published, and exposing future research topics and uncharted areas, but without proceeding to carry out further research. A whole series of such reviews, maybe published online, might lead students (of various kinds) to focus on waterways history research rather than other areas.

I perceive that this use of the academic idea of literature can be a deterrent, as can the very formal approaches suggested in publications about academic research. While some idea of existing literature, if not a good working knowledge, is valuable, it should not stop you from getting started. Part 4 will begin to consider problems with sources, but I will return to the question of literature review when writing and publication is considered.


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