Research and Writing a Book
This article was first penned well over a decade ago at the end of the era of traditional book publishing as the principal option for publication, and when digitized information and resources were still in their infancy. I am pleased to advise that Thomas Blampied, a currently published author and photographer and specializing in Rail Transportation, has agreed to provide his insights to keep this page up-to-date and relevant.
Research, especially that leading towards publication, is an exacting, exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, wit-, memory- and observation-challenging, but enormously satisfying endeavour. It is both an art and a science. It is similar to detective work in that it is 99 per cent patient and dogged pursuit, punctuated by moments of total frustration, but also, most rewardingly, heart-stopping excitement.
Doing research for its own sake is a hobby unto itself. Since bodies of knowledge and its repositories have become so vast, most researchers limit their subject, just as most stamp collectors no longer collect "the whole world". And research, after all, is a form of collecting. In its usually understood form, this collecting is gathering information, but this comes from three principal sources - the printed or written word - photographs, drawings or paintings - and the spoken or recorded word.
While the collection of the material is what is usually thought of as "doing the research", it is the interpretation that requires careful observation, a long memory, sceptical analysis, and meticulous cross-checking, to avoid the pitfalls of painful error.
Doing research for a book is all of that, together with a defined focus or object. The research becomes attuned to relevant subjects, particular topics and time frames.
First of all, one has to define the purpose and focus of the research.
How deep? How detailed? What information? What prospective audience?
The potential sources are almost infinite:
- Archives: national, railway, provincial, regional, municipal, community, individual
- Museums: national, regional, local, private
- Reference Libraries and Library Special Collections
- Government and other offices, e.g. Land Registry Offices, Harbour Commissions
- Historical Societies
- Books, Periodicals and Newspapers
- Internet web and digitized information and resources
- Photography collections
Postcard collections -see also Post Cards - Stations, Railway Scenes and Wrecks - a primary research source - by Ralph Beaumont
- Oral recollections (taped and viva voce)
A Perspective on Digitized Information and Resources
- by Thomas Blampied
Coming from inside academic history in 2014, available internet sources have grown exponentially and continue to do so.
It is generally accepted that information sources are either "primary" or "secondary".
Basically, a primary source is an established-as-reliable original document or photograph, a contemporary newspaper report of an event that has occurred, or an independently trustworthy eye-witness account. Appearance in a book, does not in itself make an item of information "fact", unless the publication cites a credible primary source.
Secondary sources are after-the-fact (i.e., subsequently researched) books and periodicals, or other accounts. These publications or reports may provide original sources, and where they do, that particular piece of information may be treated as primary, as long as that source was indeed primary, such as a contemporary document or newspaper account. Contemporary diaries, and so forth, may be treated as a primary source, but with the reservation that the diarist could have been mistaken about a certain fact or date, especially if the diary is recorded in retrospect and not on a day-by-day basis. They may of course also reflect the diarist's biases or interests.
Be careful about accepting as fact oral or local "hearsay" information without checking it against, preferably at least with one, "primary" source.
In any case, do not hesitate to seek out experts in a particular subject or area, and to ask for their input and advice.
Dates are a particular hazard, especially where they concern railway events such as openings and closings, since these usually take place in stages. For instance, in the case of the opening of a railway, this could be taken to be the sod-turning, or when the first construction train passes over the line, or the directors' inspection trip, or the passing of the first revenue train or the date of the official opening with the band, speeches and hoopla. Another hazard with dates is the dating of images. Unless one can be very sure of a particular date, it may be best to go with a "circa".
The main difficulty with photographs is that the photographer, the exact date taken, and the subject (such as a railway accident) may not be at all identifiable, or only approximately identifiable with careful observation. This has implications, not only for the identity of the photograph itself , but also for the determination of copyright.
The general rule for verifying accuracy is that a true (not just a quoted) primary source may be usually be accepted as fact, but that while secondary source information may be quite accurate, it should for assurance's sake be cross-verified with at least one other independent piece of information, before being accepted as factual. Obviously even with this precaution, there are no guarantees. One of the problems here is that the various secondary sources may be/may have been copying from each other, which would nullify them as independent secondary sources.
As a postscript, in considering one's primary sources, it is also wise to consider the political leaning or motivation of the writer, especially for example with respect to the point of view of a particular bygone newspaper report, where supposedly factual reports were not necessarily divorced from editorial bias.
Edited by me:
Books for which I have had the privilege of being a proofreader: