You’re puzzled. An online writer has provided a link of interest. There, you see an image of a record. But it is presented out of context, leaving you unsure of what you have or how much credibility you can give it. The URL suggests that it is posted at a respectable site—a state archives, no less—so you’re inclined to trust it. Still, you hear the echo of a thoughtful teacher: Do you really understand what you have found? If not, you may miss something critical.
Biographical research on people from the past is a gamble. Our person of interest may or may not have been literate. Even the schooled may have left few traces of their existence. Many documents we expect to find for the place and time will have suffered destruction. The answers we seek to specific research questions may not appear in any surviving record created by our person.1
Originals. True originals. Duplicate originals. Counterparts. Facsimiles. Photocopies. Scans. Digital copies. Image copies. Official copies. Record copies. Clerk’s copies. Certified copies. Certificates. Transcriptions. Translations. Extracts. Abstracts. Nutshells. Indexes. Databases. Reprints. Are we confused yet?
Some assembly required. Please read instructions! Historical documents don’t come with this label, but they should. Students, scholars, and family sleuths who work with the nuts and bolts of past societies love the challenge of assembling history’s raw materials into Wow! moments. Like DIY-ers everywhere, many also scoff at the thought of reading instructions.
Proof is not a document. It’s a body of evidence. As biographers or historians of whatever ilk, we do not ‘prove’ a point by discovering a record that asserts something. That assertion could be wrong. If so, any further work we do on the basis of that misinformation will likely be wrong or irrelevant.
Each record that survives from the past represents a milestone in the lives of those involved. For us, as we explore history, each record should be a stepping stone to something more. More always lies beyond for those willing to scrape away the moss of quirky language and the grit of changing legal landscapes.
A well-analyzed record is a centerstone from which many research paths diverge. That premise presents its own problem: how do we brainstorm the possibilities? How do we track the alternatives?
Documents have layers. First we see the words actually written on the paper. Beneath that surface lie the meanings those words had in their particular time and place. As we probe the record further, we discover layers of context created by law, custom, religion, and other social frameworks. A well-analyzed record will create more questions than it answers. It should also suggest more pathways we might take in our efforts to understand that corner of the past.
CASE AT POINT
Stumped Student has a document, two citation guides, a class project, and a common question: How do we cite a record when we don’t have all the details the guidebooks say to cite?
Lawrence of Arabia is said to have said, “All records lie.” If so, then how do we, as researchers, discover where the truth likely lies?
We do that through two habits:
Thorough research. The logic here is simple: We cannot piece together a puzzle if we have only a few of the pieces.