Like many historians, I have more than once discovered that the published version of a primary source is incomplete or even misleading when checked against the archival source. One of my first missions as a graduate student was locating the archival court records for a New England colony whose records were published except for some cases of adolescent boys and young adult men who were convicted of sodomy. (The sensibilities of the Victorian-era editor of the town court records were too delicate to include the details of those cases, and those cases only.)
Indeed, the intimate details of historical documents–the marginalia, the burn holes, the water stains, the ink splotches, few of which are reproducible in published form or legible on microfilm or even in digitized versions–are some of the greatest pleasures of being a historian, archivist or librarian. I have long felt that intimacy with the documents is not just desirable, but necessary–not just to be sure that published records haven’t introduced errors in my research, but because I like to touch things that the people I write about have touched. I like seeing whose handwriting is clear and the product of an educated hand, and whose handwriting is crude and full of non-standard or phonetic spellings. The rare letter from a desperate Anglo-American woman on the Maine frontier looks a lot different than an official dispatch from Governor Dudley, and those differences are flattened when the documents are published in books or transcribed digitally. That stuff matters to me.
The immediacy and sheer volume of historical materials available on the world wide (and as it turns out, not peer-reviewed) internets demands our continued scrutiny and vigilance. Here’s a recent lesson by Sister Agnes, who spent some time in a European archive recently and discovered that the compiler of an on-line series of summaries of medieval monastic charters provided false or incomplete data: Continue Reading »