Every so often a history book about the town I live in is published. People buy it and attend book signings, which is encouraging because it shows that local history sells; people want to know more about where they live and work and raise families.
What's not so encouraging is the sometimes hasty and sloppy way in which some of these books have been written and published over the years. Often the writers relied on the memories of older residents, conducted only basic research or referred to erroneous information found in older history books, leading to a perpetual cycle of published inaccuracies and misinformation.
After years of researching various historical topics about the town I live in, I've discovered many errors in these books -- people are mislabeled, dates are misprinted, locations are wrong. Contemporary writers and researchers all to often assume these books are completely factual because they've been around for so long and cited in publication after publication.
I wish I could tell them to please remember that just because it's in print doesn't mean it's accurate.
For example, a local historical tour book, written over twenty years ago and still used today, lists one house as having been built in 1835. When I was hired by the owners of that house to research it for a state historical marker application, I discovered that the house was actually built in 1875. The corrected year better explains all sorts of things about the structure -- its architecture, building materials and more.
This may not seem like a big error, but for someone learning about the town and its history, the error is significant. The earlier year suggests things about the town, the house and its original owner that aren't true. It simply puts the history of the town in the wrong perspective.
Here's how that happens. Along comes a civic group that distributes historical markers to area homes over 70 years of age. Using the tour book, they award a home with a marker that announces it was built in 1835. The marker is then placed prominently near the front door. Everyone who drives or walks by believes the house was built in 1835. (Note: The marker was changed once the correct year was known.)
And here's the thing: more often than not, many of these sorts of errors could have been avoided because the correct information isn't too hard to find. Dates of construction and property histories, for example, can usually be found in the records of county courthouses and other repositories. Writers only needed to take more time or dig deeper -- but that's where knowledge and research practice comes into play. I found the correct date of the aforementioned house, for example, by visiting the county courthouse and reviewing the property's abstract -- a public document. It wasn't difficult research, but it did take some time.
I cringe when I find errors like the one listed in the tour book. Yet, I tend to chalk them up to well-intentioned residents who, years ago, approached the task of writing a history book with great heart and zeal, but with little knowledge about conducting proper research.
Some of these books were written by committees commemorating an anniversary or an event. Others are collections of memories written by long-time residents. Understand that it's not that the books they've written are one hundred percent wrong either. But, in my experience, these books contain enough errors to give a researcher or writer pause.
As you've heard before, a horse is a camel designed by committee and memories are, at best, foggy. There is the occasional long-time resident who has a razor-sharp mind. But even those with great memories aren't one hundred percent accurate about dates, locations, people's names, etc.
I'm reminded of law classes in which students witness a staged crime and are then asked to recount what took place. Every student has a different answer -- the perpetrator's jacket was five different colors, the victim's hair color was blond, no red, no brown, and so on.
It's the same with memories -- and committees -- everyone has an opinion about what "really" happened.
That's not to say that only trained historians with advanced degrees can or should write local history books. I know some terrific amateur historians who have done a significant amount of good work in the field of local history and who have made history an important part of the community. But there are valuable lessons schooled historians learn about research.
Then again, historians -- amateur or professional -- are only as knowledgeable as their enthusiasm, training and research skills allow.
Proper research is key. Learning to research properly takes practice. Historians must determine where to find information, which sources are reliable, and what's been written before in order to skillfully sift through it all so that they can interpret, analyze or report on their research in the most accurate and knowledgeable way possible. This is critical. Writers of history who don't acquire these skills serve little purpose because they are doomed to recycle wrong information.
Admittedly, I've referenced some of these error-filled local history books in my own writing, but remember -- they're not one hundred percent wrong, either. I fact-check the information I reference with other sources; I research as much as possible to be as sure as I can that the information is accurate before I include it in my writing.
Accuracy, though, is a funny thing. To tell a story, historians rely on primary documents that often contain -- wait for it -- inaccuracies. Old newspaper articles, diaries, letters and the like were written by people who were influenced by personal beliefs and experiences, making them only as good and reliable as their writing and reporting skills -- remember the law class example? (In a recent article for Rochester Patch, I point out an error in a newspaper clipping from 1935.)
Interpretation, however, is something different. Historians hypothesize -- they make educated opinions that they then defend with research and evidence. But, like the writers of primary documents, historians, too, are influenced by personal beliefs and experiences which cloud their ability to be objective.
But historians must always strive to be as accurate -- and objective -- as possible.
When I wrote my thesis in graduate school, the paper was expected to be factual, but I wasn't expected to be "right" (as defined by someone elses' opinion) -- after all it was my interpretation of the topic. I was, however, required to prove that I researched well and could back up my arguments with evidence.
Newer local history books are often written by people trained in research and with a world of resources (online and otherwise) at their disposal -- resources that didn't exist twenty years ago.
But, unfortunately, these books are still fraught with common, avoidable errors. As a result, they simply fall in line with their predecessors, recycling wrong information.