International Maritime Library a labor of love

First published in Maine Coastal News. Reprinted with permission in Landings, October, 2015.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to be able to go to your computer and find specific information on a maritime subject? Yes, there is a lot of maritime information on the Internet, but there is a lot more still buried in the most obscure places. Another issue is that it is fragmented. You will find some here and some there, and at times it is nearly impossible to tie them together unless you know all the details. The International Maritime Library (IML) was formed in 2006 to answer this problem. It will be a digital library, based on computerized information, which can be called up at the touch of a button.

Maine’s history of merchant vessels is rich but unavailable to a casual researcher. Photo courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum.
Maine’s history of merchant vessels is rich but unavailable to a casual researcher. Photo courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum.

I have always been interested in maritime history and have consistently made it a part of the editorial content of Maine Coastal News. When putting together an article on vessels built on the Penobscot River I noticed there was not a complete detailed database on the vessels built in each town which could be accessed easily. I began to create a list for each of the towns on the river using the “List of Merchant Vessels for the United States” (MVUS).

Not thinking about the time it was going to take, I expanded this to not only encompass all the towns of the state of Maine, but for the United States. The “MVUS” was published yearly from 1867 until the early 1990s and contains basic information (Name; Official Number; Signal Letters; Rig; Gross and Net Tonnage; Length; Breadth; Depth; Service; Crew; Indicated Horsepower; When Built; Where Built; and Homeport) on each vessel registered in the United States. After 6,000 hours I had entered the data for approximately 31,000 merchant sailing vessels from 1867 to 1885 and then decided to start compiling a list of steam vessels from the “MVUS” for the years 1867 to 1903.

While entering this data I found that there were lists of vessels compiled by Robert Applebee of Stockton Springs at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. He had done a good job compiling lists for vessels built mainly from Penobscot Bay to Eastport. Applebee documented just sailing vessels, thus he missed all the steamers and many of the small boats.

Another source is Custom House records, which provide additional information on vessels arriving at certain ports around the United States. There were several volumes published by the Works Project Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and early 1940s, however, some were left partially completed. Only two Maine towns’ records were published.

It is helpful having the basic information on all these vessels, but there is a lot of other information regarding the rest of a ship’s life which was basically non-existent, such as where did she sail, her master(s), owner(s), and what was her fate. A major source for this information is in old newspapers and magazines. Reading and transcribing all the maritime related articles takes hundreds of hours for each newspaper or magazine published, but in the end it is well worth the time spent.

The more one researches this material the more one will realize just what else needs to be done. The state of Maine is well known for those who went to sea, especially the deep sea voyagers. Information on these people, especially those who became masters, is lacking. Obituaries did not contain a lot of information until the late 1800s. Reading through old newspapers helps, but a lot of information unfortunately is not documented. A trip through a coastal cemetery can give you a lot of basic information on captains and those lost at sea, but adding to that can be very challenging.

Maine is also well-known for boatbuilding, but there is not a lot of early documentation. Fortunately some newspapers found boatbuilding interesting enough to write articles about it. What can you find about the early lobster boat builders and the boats they built? Are there any photographs?

Vessels in Monhegan Harbor. Photo courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum.
Vessels in Monhegan Harbor. Photo courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum.

There is some documentation of fishing vessels in the newspapers. Last winter I spent a vast amount of time documenting the Grand Banks fishing vessels sailing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. These files include not only the vessels, but also the masters, owners, outfitters and lost vessels as well as crew members.

IML, which is a non-profit organization, is dedicated to the collection, computerization and preservation of all maritime information, such as books, periodicals, documents, personal papers and photographs. Making all this maritime information easily available is the backbone of IML’s mission. I’m constantly adding basic information to create more useful databases. In years past, extremely in-depth research generally resulted in academic books, but that is not a logical product today. Now one writes the text, illustrates it and publishes it on the Internet. The upside is that there is little to no cost and if you need to make corrections, or have learned additional information, you can easily correct it.

I was told by Tim Hodgdon of Hodgdon Yachts, who recognized the amount of work needed to get this information computerized, that I will not live long enough to complete this project. I hope to prove him wrong, but if not, I at least will have made a big dent in it!

To become a member of the International Maritime Library, visit the Web site at www.internationalmaritimelibrary.org; e-mail igmatats@aol.com; or call 207-223-8846.

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