Challenge of History
Last week, I was picking up my oldest son Kenneth from his new job. Kenneth’s workplace is located next to the Baptist church, where he and his brother Caleb attended preschool. I tried to remember how we discovered the preschool because we didn’t attend the church nor were we Baptists. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember how we discovered the preschool.
I’m sure my wife remembers but this episode reminded me how difficult is the job of the genealogist and historian. I can’t remember something from 16 years ago, which is important involving my children’s education. If the person involved in the life event can’t remember the circumstances and didn’t write it down, how can a third party with extremely limited information accurately recreate a historical life or event. Difficult stuff indeed.
In this instance, I could ask my wife but if you are writing about events 100 years ago and often longer, you don’t have a first-hand source available unless the event was written about. In this instance, your recreation of events depends a lot on the accuracy of the written word and official documents.
In genealogy, I’ve had my mother and my aunt to gain information about the family but they can only speak to what they know. Some of the information is also family lore, which has come down to the family through the generations. Official documents such as marriage and death certificates often help to fill in gaps.
In writing about history, your sources often depend on the subject matter. Few combat sports athletes or St. Louis Police Officers left diaries, etc., so you are often dependent on newspaper accounts, death certificates, etc. If I’m writing about Theodore Roosevelt, I have a treasure trove of first hand documents to assist in my research.
Despite these challenges, genealogists and historians perform excellent work particularly in recreating events. Just rememeber the limitation of sources, when you read a history book. I would also test the author’s assumptions.
Do you think written history tends to be accurate? Why or why not? You can leave a comment or ask a question about this or any post in the comment section below, on my Facebook page, Twitter profile and Google+ page.