skip navigation  The Library of Congress >> Research Centers
AFC Logo
The American Folklife Center
Connect with us:   Blog Blog  |  Facebook Facebook  |  Podcasts Podcasts   RSS RSS  | Video Webcasts
 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 2: How to Document

How to document:

Preliminary Research

In order to obtain maximum benefit from time in the field, the researcher must locate and analyze as much information as possible about the study area and the topics the project addresses before the start of fieldwork. Pre-fieldwork research of this kind is an essential part of any project. If significant data are uncovered, they can help determine the best course for fieldwork and enhance the quality of work in the field. To insure that research efforts are not duplicated, it is essential to determine what cultural documentation projects, if any, have been previously undertaken within the study area.

Valuable information on maritime heritage can be found in books, articles, census records, wills, deeds, university theses and dissertations, photograph collections, maps, charts, and business records. Publications issued by federal and state agencies concerned with natural resources, such as the U. S. Coast Guard, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Sea Grant College extension system, are helpful. Likely sources of research materials include libraries, historical societies, archives, museums, court houses, newspaper files, and private collections. A number of major publications devoted to maritime heritage are listed in the Bibliography. Two especially useful sources of information: Directory of Maritime Heritage Resources, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Maritime Folklife Resources, published by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.1

Slicing salmon at a fish cannary in Canada. Detail of a photograph by Theodor Horydczak ca. 1920-50. From Washington as it Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak

For most research projects, it is important to acquire knowledge about the study area's natural environment, including its climate, seasonal weather patterns, topography, flora, and fauna. If, for example, local fishing traditions are to be investigated, it is essential to know what species are found in local waters and the life cycle of each. Information about the biology of fish and shellfish provides a key to understanding the patterns of behavior of the fishermen who pursue them.

Similarly, it is essential to learn about the laws that regulate commercial and recreational fishing within the study area. Are there different categories of fishing licenses? Is there a "limited entry" system for licensing? Are there specific open and closed fishing seasons? Are there species-specific fishing zones? Do regulations restrict fishing activities to certain types of vessels or gear?

In addition to amassing specific types of information about the environment and laws which regulate its use, researchers should attempt to synthesize data and formulate a history of the relationship between the environment and people. How has the environment shaped human activities? How have human activities altered the environment? What are the principal "seasonal rounds" of activities followed by people within the study area, and how have they changed over time? In order to develop a study area's environmental history, researchers may find it helpful to consult with biologists, ecologists, geographers, soil scientists, and others who are familiar with the region.

Before commencing fieldwork, a researcher should use maps and charts to become more familiar with the study area. Ordinary road maps provide some information about the landscape, but U. S. Geological Service topographical maps and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nautical charts provide much more. Other cartographic aids include maps used by local governments for zoning and property assessment, and maps used by historic preservation organizations to show the locations of sites and properties. Aerial photographs, sometimes obtainable from state departments of natural resources or the offices of county property appraisers, can serve the same function. All these materials can illuminate settlement patterns and locate man-made structures, waterways, landmarks, and fishing grounds. After fieldwork has begun, researchers can draw their own maps or modify existing maps in order to plot features of the landscape such as the distribution of house types, the boundaries of fishing territories, and the locations of significant buildings and navigation landmarks.

Another valuable preliminary activity is a reconnaissance field trip. This is especially useful if researchers are not particularly familiar with the study area. Essentially, the purpose of such a trip is to survey the study area to determine a region's general layout, and to identify features which merit documentation.

The next task is to create a list of potential interviewees. This is done by talking with residents of the study area. Individuals likely to have especially broad views of local maritime activities include harbor masters, fisheries extension agents, fish buyers, and the employees of marine supply stores and bait and tackle shops. Postal clerks, clergymen, town officials, shop keepers, and newspaper reporters may also be good sources of information.

When asking questions, researchers should make it clear who they are, what information is being sought, and why the information is being sought. There is no substitute for honesty in such matters. Fieldworkers--especially if they are strangers--may encounter some measure of suspicion on the part of people they contact. While attitudes vary considerably from place to place, it is important to bear in mind that inquisitive outsiders are not always viewed in a positive light. Often such attitudes are the result of actual or perceived ill-treatment from marine patrol officers, biologists, and other representatives of state regulatory agencies, as well as agents of the Internal Revenue Service and various types of researchers. A tactic that sometimes helps to acquaint people with research efforts is to submit a news release about the project to the local newspaper. If the release includes a request for assistance, accompanied by the address and telephone number of the project coordinator, area residents may provide suggestions about knowledgeable people to interview and other sources of information. The "Informant Information" form included as Appendix A.1 can be used to develop a file of potential informants.

After a list of potential informants has been drawn up, use it to plan a schedule for interviewing and other types of documentation. For example, if researchers have little understanding of the history of the study area, a decision might be made to select a retired school teacher, whom area residents frequently named as the person most knowledgeable about local history, as the first person to interview. Similarly, if the project is concerned only with local boatbuilding traditions, researchers might draw up a list of all local builders, collect basic information about each one, then decide to contact the most experienced builder before speaking with the others. For the purposes of some projects, such as comprehensive surveys of local maritime traditions, it is important to select a representative sample of local residents.

Researchers should be flexible in their work and be prepared to modify their field plan if initial research activities indicate this would be beneficial. If, for example, during a search for information on local net-making traditions, a researcher learns that a net maker has recently moved to the area from a distant state, he or she might decide not to schedule an interview with this person. If the project is a group effort, regular meetings with other fieldworkers will be needed to share information and to assess the need for any modifications in the work plan. As more and more data are collected, fieldworkers may recognize the need to add or delete certain queries, potential informants, and topics. In addition, experiences in the field may indicate the need to alter documentation techniques.

Before interviewing begins, attempt to determine local standards for meeting a new person. Is it considered appropriate to make initial contact over the telephone? Is an unannounced visit to a person's home by a stranger acceptable? Would an introduction by another resident be the best approach? It is also prudent to learn local views about proper attire, times of the day to visit, and forms of address.

It is often beneficial to use the first face-to-face contact with a potential informant to introduce oneself, explain the project, and obtain more information about the person before getting down to the business of scheduling an interview. It may turn out that the person knows nothing whatsoever about project topics; consequently, it may not be necessary to bring up the subject of an interview. If the person does possess relevant knowledge, and an interview is deemed desirable, the initial meeting can also serve as an opportunity to gather information for use in preparing for the interview. On occasion, when the subject is willing and the interviewer is prepared, the initial meeting may also prove to be an appropriate time to conduct an interview. In order to be ready to take advantage of such opportunities, fieldworkers should have the necessary equipment--tape recorder, tape, notebook, pen or pencil--close at hand (in the car, for example) and ready for immediate use.

To promote successful fieldwork and encourage community support and cooperation, fieldworkers should: (1) be open and honest about the nature of their work; (2) demonstrate enthusiasm for their work; (3) cultivate the skill of listening to what people have to say; (4) be sensitive to appropriate behavior and etiquette; (5) protect sensitive or confidential information elicited from informants; and (6) show informants that their assistance is genuinely appreciated.


1. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Directory of Maritime Heritage Resources (Washington: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1984); Peter Bartis and Mary Hufford, Maritime Folklife Resources: A Directory and Index. Publications of the American Folklife Center, no. 5 (Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, 1980).


  Back to Top


 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

  The Library of Congress >> Research Centers
   May 15, 2015
Legal | External Link Disclaimer

Contact Us:
Ask a Librarian