I had intended to discuss books about waterways history as sources, and then later to consider some general reservations about published sources. However, on reflection, I feel it best to first discuss doubts about published books in general, and leave waterways history books specifically until the next piece.
Can we trust books? This may seem an odd subject for a discussion of waterways history, but it is germane. Perhaps the first distinction is between physical books that have been through the medium of a publisher, and those which are self-published or in e-book form. While some excellent works have been self-produced, publishers do provide an initial filter over work that could be downright misleading. Print publishers do vary, however, and while some employ a careful editorial approach, others simply make a commercial judgement as to whether a book will sell within a reasonable period. Some books – law textbooks, for instance – are subjected to a process of heavy expert scrutiny, rather like refereeing over academic journals. Other rely on the quality (and perhaps ethics) of the author’s knowledge and judgement.
One of the first questions is to identify the author, and what qualified them to write the book. Sometimes, of course, there is more than one author, in which case special attention must be paid to the editor(s) and the various contributors. It is best, therefore, to consider the author’s credentials, if any, and any autobiographical evidence. Re-reading my own British Canals: The Standard History (based on Charles Hadfield’s original), I realise that I provided copious details about my own background; even so, there is more that could have been included. Details about Charles are less clear. In many academic books, the main detail will be, simply, the author’s position at a higher education institution, and maybe other books by them. Sometimes the acknowledgements in the book will provide evidence of others whom the author has consulted. All this provides some evidence that the author’s background would make them suitable to write this book. If there is no such evidence, it may be that you should place less trust in the contents.
There is a danger of excessive reliance on credentials. An author might be a lecturer in history, but their focus and “period” are not ones which would provide an understanding of waterways history. Some books about history informed by postmodernism proclaim the death of the author, but they are rarely published posthumously! Alternatively, the apparent lack of background, or an odd one, has not inhibited an enthusiast from developing rigorous work, or at least, telling about what they know. Teaching nature conservation policy at one point, I warned students against dismissing an (excellent and thorough) study written by a serving police officer: the nature of the “day job” may not reflect other serious interests.
Perhaps one can trust a book whose author seems qualified or knowledgeable. A second question is to consider evidence from the book itself. One approach is to turn to the bibliography, and to footnotes/endnotes, to see what is cited – and sometimes what isn’t. This will certainly provide some idea of the sources that the author has used. What is the book’s coverage, and does it seem internally consistent – following through initial premises into some sort of conclusion? Of course, it may be well-constructed rubbish, but a work that seems disjointed and inconclusive may be suspect. Using your own existing knowledge, it may be possible to see how the author has covered particular events (if at all), and also to look for clear howlers of spelling, dates and even errors in maps, nomenclature and so on. Consider when it was published, and what work might have been carried out since that time. Some books in some disciplines date much earlier than others – the natural sciences and law textbooks date very quickly, Dickens and Shakespeare less so. Finally, if you can find reviews, read them carefully. Some on Amazon derive either from a form of sycophancy or seek to rubbish the author, but often reviews can provide impressions about the book’s validity.
In defence of authors, publishers can demand cuts to the original, or insist that the author enlarges the scope of studies beyond the author’s competence. Some books are marred by unreasonable deadlines, so that work is rushed and not fully checked, and errors and misapprehensions creep in.
These general points apply to much that is published about waterways history; the next piece will deal specifically with waterways history books as sources.