I was not a real believer in the internet to start with. Some of my early adopter friends thought that three-paragraph encyclopedia articles were terrific; I thought they were pathetic. Now you can look at this in several ways. One that my expectations were too high, or two that theirs were too low. Luckily within a few years, we were both proven wrong, and a massive amount of content is available. Or is it?

Researching on the worldwide web can easily overwhelm you. So much is available. But it’s still easy to reach the edges of the maps, and run into freaky misinformation you know is unreliable. You can be misled by what is available – a confirmation bias if you believe that the web is reliable.

A close friend asked me why I kept such an extensive maritime research library. A wall full of reference texts, photos, and some plans. My response was that lots of this were not available online. She was incredulous, ” you can find everything online, Lou.” She referred to some of the many obscure texts she used online to research. I pointed out that some of what she mentioned were behind very steep pay-walls. And not all areas of knowledge seemed to be equally well served for digital transcriptions and scans.

To summarize, not all areas of the internet get equal service. And as I stated at the outset, you can either have too low or too high expectations.
If you’ve ever taught, you know the frustration of explaining to a student the issues involved in conducting all your research on Wikipedia. For most general topics, it’s adequate as long as you are wary of misinformation and bias. But the more you dig, the more the edges of the maps appear.

If you don’t believe me take some topic you know well and start digging. Look carefully for the seams, edges, and misinformation. Luckily, dedicated individuals love finding these gaps and filling them in. Sometimes it’s in really esoteric areas. For example, the other day, I located a closed Facebook group dedicated to the floorplans of cruise liners. Who’d want a plan from a 1932 liner? Maybe me as part of a planned ship portrait. They are wearing the halo this week for the most useful new find on Facebook.

It’s going to be long before that wall of books, pictures, and plans become obsolete. Still, the internet has finally come to fulfill a new purpose as it grows: providing access to information not contained in that professional library.


In January, I started what I thought to be a quick project for a portrait of the halibut Schooner Republic. There was not much online where I began, and even less available in terms of print sources. My collection at home also came up dry. I was able to complete the project in March but wished that I had better documentation. 

Typically, I budget about a quarter of my project time to research, unless the portrait is a well documented one design, or a small boat for which sufficient illustrations or plans are available. It’s when you start work on less documented material that you wind up in the weeds. The halibut schooner was in the deep underbrush.

Regardless of the craft you serve, there are documentation needs: patterns, illustrations, methods, notes on materials, or historical information. Over the years, I’ve grown a small but healthy collection of print and visual content. My urges to add to this depend on my current and proposed projects and general interest. Practice a craft long enough, and you wind up with at least a small library. If you love books, the affliction is much worse. Obtaining the material that you need can be a bit of a circus.

You might notice that booksellers don’t tend to hold onto extensive stock these days, and publishers have little motivation to make excess print runs for materials that they might have to sell as remainders. I suggest that you haunt library sales, befriend local used book shops, and support independent booksellers wherever you find them. But, this method of growing your collection can be hit or miss. If you are a chronic browser, this is a great way to expand your collection slowly. It won’t yield specific results when you need something for a project now.

As a sidenote for the public library user: I love libraries. However, except specialty libraries, like those associated with Maritime Museums, they don’t tend to have much for me. Sadly, every year I buy books for my collection that were initially library copies but got withdrawn and sold.

 Which, of course, leads you to the internet and the realm of search engines. Depending upon the popularity of what you are researching, sources can be very rich or impoverished. For those of you who claim that they can always find whatever they need online, I’d posit that whatever it is they are doing, it is what many others are doing as well. Take an excursion further afield, and you will soon find out that the internet is not an equal opportunity provider.

This precisely why sites like Biblio, Abe books, Thriftbooks, and other places are your friends. Their search engines index the holdings of associated book dealers. The descriptions can be sparse. So, you have to be on top of your game in terms of what you are seeking. The photo I am using for this post shows part of the workshop library. I bought a number of these books used online.

Here are a couple of pointers:

1.) learn to read and evaluate the descriptive methods sellers use to describe books – keep them honest – if a book is described as having a tight binding, but shows up with loose pages complain.

2.) compare listings among various booksellers for price, condition, and shipping.

3.) Research your purchases. Not all sellers describe the contents of the book accurately. 

4.) Develop wish lists for content that you are seeking. It may be available next month.

A current project I am working on is a portrait of a 1900 Victorian Steam Yacht. Thin online prospects and lean sources in my library led me to four online book dealers. I was able to find several low priced additions to the library that fill in some of my collections deficiencies. As the books arrive, I can fill the knowledge gaps in designing and executing the steam yacht.

A post on that should be forthcoming.

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