Road Map For the Literature Review

The Johnstown Flood of 1889:

A Roadmap for the Literature Review

Ashleigh Foster

HIST 297

Professor Ferrell and Mr. Bales

April 10, 2020

I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work. Two writing center meetings occurred during the rewrite of this paper. Ashleigh Foster


            The Johnstown flood occurred in 1889, over 130 years ago, but is still considered one of most catastrophic disasters in American history, with the number of deaths reaching over two thousand. This event has been written about ever since it occurred; with over 130 years of literature, in what ways has its historiography changed? Through analyzing the monographs dedicated to exploring this tragic event, researchers can determine what changes have been made to the telling and retelling of this catastrophe, and why those changes occurred. When conducting a literature review, researchers explore why and how writers revisit the Johnstown flood. To best prepare for conducting a successful literature review, certain procedures must be followed. By thoroughly describing and explaining how and why to follow these procedures, it is possible to acquire a better understanding of how to properly execute a literature review.

            The phrase “literature review” may create a looming feeling of uncertainty in researchers if they do not have sufficient understanding of the procedures to follow when performing this task. Although intimidating to the first-time researcher, the process of obtaining background information for a literature review can be efficient and thorough if done by following the correct steps. Once the background information is gathered, knowing what questions to seek the answers for within them is essential to completing the literature review. By combining the knowledge of how to gather the literature and what to search for within and about the literature once it is collected, the researcher is prepared to conduct a literature review.

Two logical courses of action can be taken when beginning research: locate subject encyclopedias or browse subject headings. When choosing my topic of the Johnstown flood of 1889, the only information I had about the event was that it took place in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889. Although I was excited to research this topic because I have visited Johnstown multiple times, I was not in the advantageous position of knowing much of anything about this topic. Luckily, I had been educated by Dr. Ferrell and Mr. Bales on how to navigate the many research resources offered by the University of Mary Washington. A few examples of these resources are databases, subject encyclopedias, and library guides. I chose to first locate relevant subject encyclopedias and dictionaries when beginning research on the Johnstown flood.

The procuring of significant background material is the key to setting the foundation for the literature review research process. Locating subject encyclopedias and dictionaries aids researchers in discovering the many related fields of study that may not be obvious about their topic, which provides the possibility to locate even more relevant background material. The use of encyclopedias helps to identify key words and concepts about the topic, offers the researcher better understanding of the topic’s historical context, and provides bibliographies that the researcher can use to locate monographs on their topic. The few things I knew about the Johnstown flood of 1889 were enough to direct me to relevant subject encyclopedias. I was able to locate encyclopedias about disasters in general, disasters in America, American history, and the United States Gilded Age. Each of these encyclopedias would offer different angles to analyze the Johnstown flood from.

Another technique I could have begun the research process with is browsing subject headings. It is possible to discover various relevant topics that were previously unknown to the reader through browsing subject headings. For example, because I had no prior knowledge about the Johnstown flood and fire of 1889, I had presumed that the flood was solely caused by factors of the weather. It was not until I began to browse through subject headings that I discovered that the flood was related to dam failure. Knowing that fact suggests more relevant subject encyclopedias to consult to find monographs.

To browse subject headings, it is useful to know the title of one monograph or article about the topic being researched. As I was unable to actually browse the subject encyclopedias that I believed would contain information on my topic, I did not have the chance to consult the bibliographies within the encyclopedias, which would have listed monographs or articles on the topic. I began my search for material on the Johnstown flood of 1889 through using the University of Mary Washington’s Quest database. I simply typed in the phrase “Johnstown flood 1889.”

Within the first few results, I had found multiple monographs about the Johnstown flood. One of the monographs that had been determined by the database to have high relevancy from my broad search was called History of the Johnstown Flood: With Full Accounts Also of the Destruction on the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers, and the Bald Eagle Creek,[1] by Willis Fletcher Johnson, and was published in 1889, the same year as the flood. I avoided including it with the monographs I would use in the literature review because I believed it would be considered a primary source. One of the difficult elements of gathering material for a literature review is determining what is part of the literature. Although primary sources are not typically part of the literature, they may be useful in determining how the topic was initially written about. Even though I did not include the monograph that was published the year of the flood, I did still examine the details of that monograph, which provided the useful subject heading of “Johnstown (Pa.) – Flood, 1889”, which further lead me to find additional monographs.

Another tool that enabled me to discover monographs about the Johnstown flood of 1889, such as Richard O’Connors’ Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke, published in 1957,[2] was the virtual shelf browse function. This function shows which books are located next to the book the researcher is viewing. Books on the same topic are often located near each other, if not right beside. However, it is at this point where subject headings become more helpful: perhaps there are books available only online about the Johnstown flood of 1889. If I relied only on the virtual shelf browse to discover monographs about the Johnstown flood, I would have missed out on any books not housed in the University of Mary Washington’s Simpson library. Subject headings might also help the researcher discover other relevant subjects to analyze the Johnstown flood by, and other material that frames the topic in that way.

            While searching for material by using the Quest database and EBSCO Host, I had noticed that I was able to locate many more academic journal articles than monographs. Another common type of source that I observed during my research was maps of the flood area. There were also many more results for articles that had been published in 1889 or soon after 1889, which I avoided, because I believed that they were primary sources.

            While gathering secondary sources to include on the topic approval form, I was able to list only three monographs about the Johnstown flood of 1889; the rest of my sources were articles from academic journals. The three books I had unearthed were The Johnstown Flood by David G. McCullough,[3] published in 1968, Johnstown The Day the Dam Broke,[4] by Richard O’Connor, and Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster,[5] by Al Roker, published in 2018. The Johnstown Flood and Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke had been available at the Simpon library; Al Roker’s book was not. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain these titles to actually review for this assignment.

            Once I had found the monographs on the Johnstown disaster, I conducted additional research on each one. I wanted to discover more about who the authors of the monographs were. What qualified them to write about the Johnstown flood? When did they begin writing about the Johnstown flood, and what prompted them to do so? What sources did these writers use? How did they obtain them? How long did it take to gather enough to feel adequately prepared to begin writing? What questions are answered by the end of the monograph; what questions arise from it? During a literature review, researchers seek the answers for these and many other questions to determine how the historiography of the topic has evolved, and what is left to still be addressed.

            Databases such as Biography and Genealogy Master Index and Gale Literary Sources provide biographies, background information, and referenced works of authors. These databases clarify the authority these authors have in the topics that they have written on. The Biography and Genealogy Master Index presents the different works in which the author is referenced. Mr. Bales stated in the instructional video about the Biography and Genealogy Master Index, if the author is referenced in certain materials, such as the Dictionary of Literary Biography, it is likely that they have more credibility in their writing.

            Gale Literary Sources offers reviews and biographies on authors. The information listed is not always relevant to the research being conducted, such as how many children the author has or avocational hobbies they have. However, Gale Literary Source is extremely useful because it lists the other works and books done by the author. Gale Literary Source also gives information on author’s education and occupation. Through Gale Literary Source I discovered that Al Roker is a meteorologist. Just as I had initially believed that the Johnstown flood of 1889 occurred simply due to weather related disaster, it would be logical for a meteorologist to report on the topic. The information obtained through Gale Literary Source gives the researcher the understanding that Al Roker has good authority to write on the flood from a meteorologist’s perspective.

            With the monographs identified, and information on their authors collected, it is time to begin analyzing the monographs themselves. In a literature review, the researcher is interested in the historiography of an event. While it is inevitable to learn about the event or topic as one studies its historiography, the main goal of a literature review is to analyze the way the topic is viewed. Why has the author decided to write about this event? What angles does the author use in his or her analysis? What sources does the writer use? How has the argument about the topic changed from author to author? What has prompted the author to write about the topic, and what biases may the author have because of it? These questions are used to analyze the way the topic is written about, and why it is that the writer has interpreted the topic in the way he or she does.

            Once the monographs are attained, the valuable answers to these questions are often found in the acknowledgments and introductions of the books. Oftentimes, the author will expressly state what their motivation was to begin writing on the topic. If the authors have other works or titles in mind as they begin their own work, they will often refer to it in an introductory part of the book, if not elsewhere throughout it. The introductions of monographs may also lay out main points of the book, which additionally aids the researcher as he or she analyzes it.  

            Another important part of any monograph is the bibliography. If I had access to the monographs I have uncovered, I would be most interested to determine if any of the sources are identical between the books. Or if, even more interestingly, one book was in conversation with another. How may have sources changed in the time between each books’ publication? Was a change or discovery of new sources what may have prompted the author to begin writing on the topic? What is it that the author believes is still left to be explored or revisited about the topic, and what helped the author to determine that?

            As a writer approaching the task of conducting a literature review for the first time, it is intimidating to think about completing such an extensive project on my own. However, through the support of Dr. Ferrell and Mr. Bales, especially through their instructional videos that break down this assignment into small and palpable pieces, I feel well equipped to perform the literature review. It has been helpful to be prompted into critically thinking about why we are doing the different parts of the process, not just being told how to do it.

            Although I have been limited to only theoretically performing many parts of the research process, I am prepared for when I am to put this knowledge to practice. I know how to start, where to start, and the logical course of action that allows me to discover the literature. Acquiring the material is only half of the battle; understanding what questions to ask, and for what reason they are being asked is just as critical to the literature review process. However, with a proper plan, access to immense databases, and generous support from professors and librarians, a first-time writer of a literature review has nothing to fear.


Johnson, Willis Fletcher. History of the Johnstown Flood: With Full Accounts Also of the Destruction on the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers, and the Bald Eagle Creek. Philadelphia: Edgewood Pub., 1889.

McCullough, David G. The Johnstown Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

O’Connor, Richard. Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957.

Roker, Al. Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster. United States: William Morrow, 2018.

[1]Willis Fletcher Johnson, History of the Johnstown Flood: With Full Accounts Also of the Destruction on the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers, and the Bald Eagle Creek (Philadelphia: Edgewood Pub., 1889).

[2]Richard O’Connor, Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957).

[3] David G. McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968).

[4] Richard O’Connor, Johnstown the Day the Dam Broke (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1957).

[5] Al Roker, Ruthless Tide: The Heroes and Villains of the Johnstown Flood, America’s Astonishing Gilded Age Disaster (United States: William Morrow, 2018).

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