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Workshop report - Doing maritime history online

Posted: Wednesday 23rd February 2022

Workshop report - Doing maritime history online

On 4 February 2022 the BCMH hosted an online workshop exploring the challenges and opportunities of doing maritime history research online. Below is a write up from the day.

In recent years, the discussion on digitisation and accessibility of archival resources has seen a sharp rise. Physical restrictions, such as lockdowns and targeted closures, meant that researchers had to find alternative ways to acquire the information needed. A pandemic that has changed human interactions worldwide fuelled the spread of online conferences, seminars, and workshops. Now, with the slow reopening of research spaces and a planned return to physical conferences, it is interesting to note that the need for online live contents and readily accessible resources remains. This workshop successfully provided a series of insights on digitised maritime history resources, simultaneously looking at the limitations of online research and the future of reading rooms.

Debating the future of conferences and workshops, accessibility emerged as the key word. The practicality of being able to attend to events hosted by institutions located in another city, if not another continent, remains, pushing for a future implementation of hybrid conferences, where attendees can join the discussion online or in person. Another aspect of accessibility discussed was the aim to increase the participation of non-academics, which formats might be appealing to them and the added value of their participation.

Similarly, the impact of accessibility was discussed in relation to archival research, where a collegiate attitude between historians and archaeologists was recommended, together with an increased connectivity of online platforms which could provide a holistic history telling. Such an approach would broaden the opportunities to investigate maritime narratives related to smaller and less documented vessels, which nevertheless hold historical value in terms of seafaring and shipbuilding. This was a call to avoid reinforcing existing hierarchies in archives, which usually privilege larger crafts, such as warships and ocean liners, over a democratised vision of all the records, which also impacts on digitisation schedules and priorities.

A fascinating trend seen throughout the workshop has been the telling of microhistories, which have shown how maritime archival research can detail the lives of individuals, their origins, thoughts and impressions, misadventures at sea, and desires. The ‘democracy’ of certain maritime resources, such as the Crew Agreements, allows to follow the journeys of seamen independently of their social status, education, religious beliefs, and ethnicity, despite frequent variations in names spelling, which might be an obstacle in online searches. In a way, the study of maritime history has been facilitated by these documents with a level of information not quite comparable in other sectors of society, especially for land-based workers. Furthermore, online access provides the chance to delve into the stories of the excluded, particularly those of women at sea, BAME and LGBT+ persons, raising awareness on past (and present) negative behaviours perpetrated in maritime environments. Personal experiences drawn from online communities could help shed light on often overlooked narratives in combination with historic documents.

Research often leads to unexpected results, as shown by the findings of most speakers. They can be fruit of an algorithm, as in the case of the Brunel’s Network Project, which innovative maps created a network of influence and connections around the first steamships. The unexpected can lie in diaries, such as the beautiful sketch of the warship Terror, or in letters. Online availability of maritime collections, and an easy access to search them, has opened a wealth of previously inaccessible information, and the potential of unearthing new understandings of crews, ships, and land-based stakeholders. However, digitisation is not the end of the path, collections are starting to be connected in an effort to dissolve institutional barriers and providing new exciting opportunities for researchers.

A quote by Benjamin Bakewell on the ship 'Factor':

At 4 o’clock this Morning I had a delightful view of Venus and the Moon, which from the darkness of the atmosphere, appeared to vie with each other in Lustre. Shortly after, the sun rose out of the Sea with all the grandeur & sublimity imaginable.

See the full programme here.

You can find out more including details of the online resources and links from the day on our Resources page


Thank you to all our workshop presenters, organisers and attendees, and to Luca Rapisarda for writing this workshop report.