I Want Answers

October 1, 2008
Illustrations By Dave Wheeler

Illustration by Dave Wheeler

A message arrives in Duke reference librarian Carson Holloway's e-mail inbox on a Monday evening. It's from a 2002 graduate of the English Ph.D. program who wants to know whether Holloway '75, the library's specialist in military and world history, can help with a bit of research.

At a conference, the alumnus heard a presenter mention that on his famous sixteenth-century trip around the globe, Sir Francis Drake required aristocrats to row alongside commoners. He wants to use this anecdote in an essay that he is working on but can't find a source to authenticate it. The conference presenter provided little guidance. And he's been perusing historical accounts of Drake's voyages, selected at random, with no luck.

Holloway quickly consents to take the case. His first move is to conduct a Google search using key terms such as "Drake," "noblemen," "commoners," and "speech." He assumes that the alumnus already tried this, but there's no harm in double checking, and, with Google yielding so many results, there is always a chance that the alumnus overlooked something important.

Holloway turns up a few promising leads, including a partial quote from a book called Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia (full text available through Duke libraries via a subscription service) but since there is no bibliographic reference, decides to keep searching. The quote does yield a helpful hint: It uses the term "gentleman," rather than "nobleman," and "mariner," rather than "commoner."

His next stop is Historical Abstracts, an online database of books, journal articles, and dissertations about world history (excluding the U.S. and Canada) from 1450 to the present—frequently a go-to source, given his specialty. "I wanted to see if somebody had already written on that topic," he explains. "If so, we could just pull that online."

As it turns out, nobody has. So Holloway moves on. He searches the Duke catalogue, using "Drake" both as author and keyword, to see what books the library has about the voyage in question. Then he goes to the Encyclopaedia Britannica's website to peruse the article on Drake and to ascertain which books are mentioned in the extensive bibliography. "I wanted to see what an expert thought of as the best books on Drake," he explains.

He comes up with a short list of books and heads out to the stacks to take a look. It's not long before he's flipping through the index of Samuel Bawlf's The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake. Under "Mariners on Drake's voyage," the subheading "relations with gentleman" directs him to pages 109-10.

There, he finds an account of Drake's attempt to "address the problem of low morale and, in particular, the ill feeling that still existed between the mariners and the gentlemen" aboard his ship. In an address to the crew recorded by sailor John Cook, he declares, "I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman. What, let us show ourselves all to be of a company, and let us not give occasion to the enemy to rejoice at our decay and overthrow." The endnotes attribute Cook's account to a 1926 limited-edition compilation of historic accounts, The World Encompassed and Analogous Contemporary Documents Concerning Sir Francis Drake's Circumnavigation of the World.

Just after 10 o'clock on Tuesday morning, Holloway e-mails these references to the alumnus.