Practical Guide to Using Online Archives 12th & 26th February 2022

NAS member Karen Moule has been diving for over 30 years and has always had a love of diving on shipwrecks. She has written an overview of the recent NAS Practical Guide to Using Online Archives.

How often have you dived on a shipwreck and wanted to find out more about it than the local dive guide can tell you? Or you may have found something- maybe dived a 'blip' on the echo sounder- and want to try and find out what it could be? Well, this course will help you to literally 'dive deeper' to find out more.

The Course

Melanie Taylor and Sheilah Openshaw were the hosts for the course, which was split across two mornings, two weeks apart. The first morning was spent looking at where you can find information online to help with your initial investigations. this included several online portals including Government websites, newspaper archives, national archives, and local archives.

Mel explained the difference between primary and secondary data- primary being eye-witness accounts often found in newspapers, or Lloyd's Register for detailed information of what happened at the time. Secondary information can be a later analysis of a situation or reinterpretation depending on the author's purpose for the piece.

above: why not check out the site record for yourself using the link

Mel also cautioned us on being aware that searches on specific words may throw up misleading information, so we needed to be mindful of separating out the information we seek from irrelevant information that we don't! And depending on the age of the wreck and the location, there could be different spellings for the same ship, town or area depending on the source you're accessing. 

I've often felt like an amateur sleuth when visiting shipwrecks, trying to work out what happened at the 'crime scene', and this course feels like an extensions of that detective work, interrogating online archives to find and piece together the facts of the case. similarly finding a 'blip' and investigating possible wreckings at the site online, may throw up a few different possible ships. by finding out more about those ships before diving on the wreck, will give you a more informed viewpoint when you do dive on it. At which point, some evidence would hopefully confirm the identity of the ship.

Above: An example of the amount of wrecks you may find whilst investigating 

Having been given some homework to put our learnings into practice, we started part 2 of the course with a brief recap and feedback on the homework that had been set. My homework was to find out more about the Lusitania - not the famous one - but a ship, wrecked in 1833. I felt that it was pretty difficult to find much information about this ship, but I did find where it was located, what type of ship it was and where it was from. Thankfully, Mel confirmed she could only find the same limited information which provided the brief narrative, and a good basis to start from. But what about more formal documents?

Above: Lusitania brig 1833

Several websites were highlighted that would provide primary source documents - like crew lists, the tonnage of the vessel, the type of vessel, who the master was, the owner and where it was built; even letter, court documents and ships plans.

Applying these resources to my existing homework helped to flesh out that the Lusitania that wrecked in 1833 was built in 1827, was a brig, built in Liverpool and told me who the owner and Master were.

Above: Lloyds register showing the and detailing the Lusitania

Sheilah recommended exhausting all online options before physically visiting any archives in person due to time and cost of visit. The archives' staff are also really helpful if you're looking for something specific, so contacting them by email or telephone would save you time too.

As a new NAS course, it is a really helpful one, as it is quite complicated to know where to go for which piece of information. Now we all have a list of archives and portals to help us find out more about future wrecks so we can unlock their stories.