Category Archives: Books

20 Ways the Shipping Container has Changed the World

Shipping containers have fundamentally changed the way of the world since their conception in 1956. They perform the thankless task of transporting billions of tons of cargo each and every year. We know how important shipping containers are but not many of us know their origins.

An infographic called “20 Ways The Shipping Container Took Over The World”, produced by, show us precisely how the shipping container has become so popular. For example, as you read this approximately 20 million containers are traveling across the ocean. And over 90% of everything your purchase has been transported using a shipping container.


Click above to see the complete infographic

Much of the information in this infographic has come from Mark Levinson’s book, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. A more recent book on the subject is Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. I’ve read the latter; it was great. I haven’t yet read the former.

All of this change has only taken 60 years, as back in 1955 0% of cargo was transported using containers. Have a look at the infographic to find out even more about how shipping containers have changed the world!

Using WorldCat Records in Part 1, Finding Books Mentioned in the Database, and Finding Books About Ships

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about using WorldCat through I finally started, but as usual, my blog post has grown to be much too long for just a single post. So I’ll split this into two posts: one on finding monographs (ie, books) through WorldCat, and one on finding manuscript works through WorldCat. WorldCat does many different useful things in the database.

First, what is WorldCat, and what kind of records do you find there? WorldCat is a massive database that shows what books and magazines are owned by libraries in the US and around the world. WorldCat is created and managed by OCLC, an Ohio-based library services company. The first great application of WorldCat in is in helping you locate a book that mentions a ship of interest to you. I believe that knowing that a mention of a ship exists gets you at least 75% of the way to finding that citation. If you didn’t know the citation existed, then it wouldn’t count at all. But if you know it exists, then there are lots of ways of getting your hands on it, and seeing what it says. The easiest way is to see if a library near you owns the book, and here’s where WorldCat is a huge help.

If you click on “Find in a library near you” on any monograph (book) or serial (magazine) citation in, WorldCat will try to figure out where you are, and then locate the library nearest to you. You can always put in a ZIP code or a city name, too, to customize your search.

For example, imagine you’re searching for information about the ship “Punnet”. The premium database tells you that it’s mentioned in H. T. Lenton’s massive volume British & Empire Warships of the Second World War, on two different pages. You don’t own that book, so where can you find a copy?


Click on “Find in a library near you”, as shown here, and it’ll take you to this page in WorldCat that shows you more about the book, and most importantly, where the nearest copy is. In my case, WorldCat reports that the nearest library with this book is less than a mile away! (I’m lucky that way.)


Other libraries also have it, and maybe one near where I’ll be going has a copy. For instance, if I’m headed to Chicago on some upcoming trip, I could put in a Chicago ZIP Code (or just type “Chicago, Illinois”), and find out what libraries in the city own a copy. (Chicago Public Library and University of Chicago Library both own it, I find.)

If there’s no library near you with a copy, remember that you can almost certainly request that a copy be sent to you through your local public library, via “inter-library loan” (ILL). ILL is sometimes free, and sometimes costs something — but remember what a great thing the library did for you, and be sure to provide a bit of financial support to them for helping you obtain this volume!

 As a somewhat advanced aside, it’s definitely worth looking through multiple records in WorldCat. For technical reasons, not all holdings records (ie, “my library owns this book!” messages) are attached to a single bibliographic description of a book. This is especially true for American versus non-American holdings: if you only see European libraries that own a book, and you’re in the US, be sure to see if there are other records that display American libraries’ holdings, and vice versa.

There’s more to WorldCat’s content, however. One of the great collections of resources in the free part of the database is the set of about 40,000 authority records from the WorldCat database, but there can be some challenges in using the results you find there. I thought it would be useful to describe how best to use the results you find here.

WorldCat’s holdings identifies books that are about a specific ship, along with manuscript information about specific ships. In the first case, it’s important to recognize the difference between WorldCat results and other results in the database. Any given book will be assigned subject headings by professional librarians. Most books only get a handful of subject headings (rarely more than, say, six), so a book needs to be substantially about a specific ship, if it’s going to have a subject heading for that ship. Lincoln Paine’s 2000 book, Warships of the World to 1900, has the following subject headings: Warships — History, and Warships. That’s it. There’s no mention in the subject heading of the specific vessels mentioned in that book. That’s what does: it tells you which specific ships are mentioned in this book. But when you want to find the book, the “Find in a library near you” tool helps you do just that.

If a book is about a specific ship, however, there will be a subject heading for the book, which will also appear in WorldCat. For example, Cathryn Prince’s recent book, Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, has as its primary subject heading Wilhelm Gustloff (Ship). Through, you know that an entire book about the Wilhelm Gustloff exists, and you can track it down through whatever channels work best for you.

Wilhelm Gustloff

Several years ago, folks at OCLC were kind enough to generate a list of subject headings that cited ships. We agreed that these citations would be added to the free collection, not the subscription database. The result is that helps you quickly and easily find books that are by or about the ships in question, which is super-great.

Wait a minute – what was that about books by ships?

That’s the other part of the collection of records from WorldCat, and the subject of part 2 of this blog post.


ShipIndex as a Vessel Name Authority File

[This entry was written long ago, but not posted, because I was having problems with uploading images. As you’ll see, images are a critical part of this post! Now that I’ve gotten that problem resolved, I will add a few more posts soon. PMc]

Last May, I finally completed one very large file for import. This file was incredibly tough to process, but I learned a lot about how one can use the database, and I thought I’d share that information here.

The database is Mariners and Ships in Australian Waters, and it is a collection of transcribed passenger lists for thousands of voyages to Australia, primarily in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Because most records were handwritten, and then transcribed by volunteers, many, many errors crept into the database.

The database has 58,311 records in it. (I believe more are always being added to the website itself, as transcribers complete their work.) One major difference between this and every other resource is that each voyage has a separate entry. In the Ellis Island Database, a user searches by ship name, then goes in deeper by voyage date. In this case, the collection is organized by arrival year, then arrival month, then ship name – so I had to create a separate entry for each voyage, to be able to link to each transcription.

I quickly realized that there were many, many, many errors in the transcription of vessel names. Just looking over the ship names as they appeared in the spreadsheet, it was easy to spot typos – especially with the additional information I had about masters and tonnage, which helped connect a misspelling to a correct spelling.

After correcting numerous such misspellings, I did a test import of the file and found 1707 new ship names would be added to the database. I started to investigate each of those, and found that many were not actually new ship names – they were simply additional mistranscriptions of the passenger lists. As the database grows, it’s important to try and minimize the introduction of incorrect ship names.

For example, I saw this entry, which the transcriber recorded as “Maealsar”. The master’s name had been transcribed as “C M de Boer”, and the vessel size as 305 tons.

I thought it looked a bit like “Macassar”, but there were no other “Macassar”s in that file. I did a search in for Macassar (, and found an entry from the American Lloyd’s Register of American and Foreign Shipping for the same year, and found a Macassar there, with a captain C. M. De Boor, and tonnage of 306. Obviously, these are the same ship.

I corrected the vessel name, but kept the mis-transcription, too, just in case I was wrong. So the entry now looks like this: “Macassar (corrected; listed as “Maealsar”) (of Amsterdam, C M de Boer, Master, 305 tons, from the port of Balaves to Sydney, New South Wales, 23 Mar 1861)”.

Another example was this name, which had been transcribed as “Magport”:


I thought it looked like it started with an “N”, but found no “Nagport” already in the database. However, a search for “nagp*” turned up “Nagpore”, among others, and a link to the entry of Record of American and Foreign Shipping for the same year returned these two ships:


One has the same master and tonnage as the one in the transcription. It then becomes clear that there’s an “e” hiding behind the bar on the page, rather than a “t”.


I felt like it became a combination of genealogy and authority record work. I tried to find sufficient documentation to prove that my analysis was more accurate than the original. And because I had both the entire set of metadata from the source, and the 2.3 million citations already in the database, I could more easily determine that various transcriptions were incorrect.

I recognized that is beginning to serve as an authority file for vessels. It is certainly my goal to improve the database along those lines, and I will use another blog post to discuss this further.


I found many instances of doing this sort of research, and while it took a very long time, it was actually quite fun to nail down a correction. Some were surprising – I guess I can see why one might read this as “Princess of Water”:


 But why in the world would you not recognize that “Princess of Wales” makes infinitely more sense for a ship name?


I’ll provide two last examples here. This first one shows how I used the existing metadata for the resource itself to determine the correct ship name.

The beautiful handwriting on this one made it easy to read, and it’s not surprising that it was transcribed as “Oasby”. But there was only one entry in the entire file for “Oasby”, and none in the existing database, so it made me wonder.

authblog-6A search through the metadata for the captain’s name, however, found 17 entries with Kennedy as captain (as had been noted in the transcription for this entry), for ship “Easby”, and the full resource has at least 70 other entries for “Easby”. Tonnage data is the same, and after learning of the existence of “Easby”, it’s easy to see that that’s what the ship name was; and the top of the dramatic ‘E’ was lost in the digitizing process.

This made the next new ship name, “Oaton Hall”, easy to resolve to “Eaton Hall”.

Finally, I dealt with this challenging entry by using the existing database:

authblog-7I tried searching for “waurego”,  but that returned no ships. By searching for “*rego”, I found all the citations that had a word in the ship name that ends in “rego”. I could easily locate “Warrego”, and confirm that’s the right ship.

There’s other searching that could be done here, too. If I change the search to “*rego$” it returns only the ship names that actually end in “rego”, deleting several, like “Trego Renneger” or “Effrego Ventus”, from the result list.

I’ll put together another post in the next few weeks with more examples of changes and corrections I was able to make, along with a discussion of the importance of authority data for ship names.


A New Book on the Maritime History of the World

I’ve long felt that all I need to do to make a smashing success is to change how the world views maritime history. Maritime history is a mostly-neglected area of study, perhaps because it is, in many senses, the history of the space between places. While parts of maritime history are focused on an individual country (think expansion of the US interior, through and along the Mississippi River), most of maritime history looks at connections between, rather than within, a given country’s borders.

And even if you’re studying regional history, some of the most important aspects of maritime history are in the movement of people and ideas between regions — even, or especially, regions as large as continents.

So, while my primary goal with is to “simplify maritime history research”, there’s also a need to make maritime history more relevant, and perhaps more visible.

I’m thrilled to see announcements of Lincoln Paine’s new book of maritime history, titled The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, to be published in the US on October 29, and in the UK on February 6, 2014. I very much look forward to reading this book. Peter Neill, author of Great Maritime Museums of the World and a past President of South Street Seaport (and lots more; those are how I know of him), wrote in a pre-publication review, “‘I want to change the way you see the world.’ This brave ambition is brilliantly realized by Lincoln Paine in this single volume. Thoroughly researched, clearly argued, eminently accessible — we have at last a responsible and persuasive explanation of the inextricable connection between the ocean and world civilization.” I love that point.

I can’t wait to see the book itself.

Guest Post, from Cathryn Prince, Author of “Death in the Baltic”

I’m pleased to offer the following guest blog post, by Cathryn J. Prince, author of Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. The story of this ship is a remarkable one — and one that, until now, was not well-known. I expect this book will change that, however. I’m enjoying reading it, and I hope you will, as well. Ms. Prince has done a great job of telling people about her book, from C-SPAN discussions to bookstore readings (she’s headed to my hometown of Ithaca, NY, November 9 & 10).

I also think this blog post, describing how an author does maritime history research with modern technology, is particularly valuable and insightful. Thanks very much, to Ms. Prince, for sharing these views with us.

Peter McC


In the past several years the Internet and then various social media outlets have become invaluable research tools, the former I welcomed straight away, the latter – not so much. However, since I opened both my Twitter account and Facebook account I have to confess that social media has won me over. In fact, I couldn’t do the job I do without social media. As an author, reporter and researcher I find that Twitter, Facebook, tumblr and yes, even Pinterest, essential. This became especially apparent during the research, writing and launch of my most recent book, Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.

At its core “Death in the Baltic” is an oral history about the lives of several survivors of history’s worst maritime disaster. More than 9,000 perished on January 30, 1945 when the Soviet submarine, the S-13 torpedoed the Gustloff as it tried to cross from Gotenhafen (present day Gdynia, Poland) to Kiel, Germany. However, to tell the story of the Gustloff and its survivors I needed to do some maritime history research.

Through Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development, I learned about Whether you’re just discovering this site, or are already a follower, you’ll see that it is an essential tool for a researcher. Not only was I able to get the names of ships, I was able to find a vast list of books, online articles, and magazines that mentioned a specific ship.

Through Twitter I’ve connected with Polish historians, poets, and those who endured the last days of World War Two. Indeed social media is an essential arrow in a writer’s quiver because it offers a way to connect with others who may have expertise in your field, potential readers and those with shared interests.

It was through Twitter that I discovered @PolandWW2, which also has a Facebook site. Because of Google alerts I learned about Mike Boring, a deep-sea diver who visited the site of the Wilhelm Gustloff wreck. Through Twitter I’ve connected with World War Two enthusiasts like @ww2resource and @WWII_experts and @shipwreckology.

Nothing replaces traditional face-to-face interviews, and that’s why this book had me traveling from north of Toronto to Las Vegas to Tecumseh, Ontario and on to Ascona, Switzerland. It’s why traveled back and forth to Washington, DC to the National Archives and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In addition, several publications, from the Journal for Maritime Research, a fully online, peer-reviewed journal is key for historical maritime research. There is also the International Journal of Maritime History, IJMH, which is the journal of the International Maritime Economic History Association. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an excellent source to find out past weather. Likewise The Old Farmer’s Almanac can be helpful.

Museums and libraries are another source for anyone researching maritime history.  I contacted the US Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, CT. Home to the USS Nautilus, the museum houses a well-managed and extensive archive. Museums such as the NJ Maritime Museum, the Mariners’ Museum of Virginia, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the National Museum of the US Navy, and the Maine Maritime Museum all have collections – large and small.  Now I didn’t avail myself of the collections each museum had to offer; but I did find that staff at each institution more than willing to point me in the right direction.

I’ve begun work on my next project (which I will keep close to the vest right now) and again find myself tracking down information about old weather reports, ancient sea routes, shipyards and construction. Like “Death in the Baltic” maritime history is a big piece of the story. Again I am again finding the maritime community generous with time and explanation. Each connection yields another connection.

Full text links from within ShipIndex links to the full-text for nearly 85% of its citations! Before Mike ran the numbers, I guessed that a conservative estimate on links to full text would be at about 70%, so the 85% number was quite a surprise, but it’s true.

How did we do this? First, we’re linking to lots and lots of content online. There are so many free online resources with information about ships out there, and I feel like I find another one every week. But other than ShipIndex, there’s no place that brings all these resources to one place, and no way to search all of them at once. However, with ShipIndex, that’s what you’re doing. But that doesn’t get one to 85%.

Recently, we started looking for resources in Google Books. The next time you’re searching in ShipIndex and you see a hotlinked page number, try clicking on that page number. It should take you right to the page of the book within Google’s Book Search project.

Here are two examples from freely-available resources:

  • The citations for Aroostook, from Paul Calore’s Naval Campaigns of the Civil War, has a link to page 128, and the vessel is mentioned near the start of the last paragraph.
  • The citation for City of Pekin, from Arthur Clark’s The Clipper Ship Era, has a link to page 86, and the ship is mentioned about 2/3 of the way down the page.

This was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot when we did it. The goal was to try and link directly to the page that cited a specific ship. I discovered four different levels of Google Books linking:

  • No content: The book just can’t found, or it’s cited but offers no view into it at all
  • Snippet view: With snippet view, you really do only get just a touch of the book, and it’s hard to know how much or what you’ll get. Most importantly, you can only search by terms, you can’t ask Google to show you all of a specific page.
  • Preview: With preview, Google offers most of the pages of a book. This is common for recently-published works, and Google works with the publisher to figure out what they’ll show. The idea, obviously, is to show enough that someone wants to go out and buy the full book.
  • Full view: For these books, Google shows the entire thing. These are primarily books that are out of copyright protection – so, published before 1923.

We only activate links for books that are available via Full View and Preview — and we only do the Preview if it appears that most links will get to the page in question. We’ve found a few titles that are available in Preview, but so many links go to pages that aren’t visible, perhaps because the publisher only allows 10-20% of the book to be shown via Google Books, that it seems misleading to offer those links.

Links to Snippet views don’t work because there’s no way to get to a specific page. You could try to search for the ship name, but if the ship name is something like “Elizabeth”, then you’ll get every mention of “Elizabeth” in the book – including names of people, not just ships. Also, the searches just don’t work as well. This could be a result of problems in OCR work, too – if the OCR work isn’t very good, then Google won’t find specific phrases, and with the page linking, we’re going to a specific page, not searching for a ship name in the book’s text.

So, as a result, you’ll most likely find linking to Google for very old books (via Full View) and very new books (via Preview).

The horror stories about metadata in Google Books are very true. It’s a mess for any slightly complicated title, such as multi-volume sets. So, finding Navy Records Society volumes — especially multi-volume works that weren’t published consecutively — was sometimes quite a challenge. And, in some cases, volumes that should be available just aren’t. I found one book that was completely upside down. Others have lousy scan quality. But the fact is that an enormous amount of content is available from anyone’s computer now, and it will only improve.

Try it out; see what you think.

This Day in History, 1620 – Mayflower Set Sail

On this day in 1620 (old style; September 16, in new style), Mayflower sailed from Southampton, England. She arrived in the hook of Cape Cod on November 11. The rest is, as they say, history.

Nathaniel Philbrick published his book about the ship in 2006; it’s titled Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. My feeling was that the book should have been titled “King Philip’s War,” since it was much more about the interactions between the settlers and the Native Americans they encountered once they arrived, than it was about the voyage or the vessel, but very little is known about those subjects. Nevertheless, it made for an interesting story.

If you have other opinions about the book, please don’t hesitate to share.