Evidence Explained

Yet historical truths are rarely rooted in either shortcuts or comfort.

–Elizabeth Shown Mills

I guess this is the ultimate nerd moment: excitement over Elizabeth Shown Mills’ 800-page bible of accountability: Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Not being a professional historian, I wasn’t familiar with this book until I read about it on Michael Hait’s blog, at which point I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

My practice on this web site may fall a bit short of her exacting and exhaustive standard of documentation, but many things are becoming clearer thanks to Mills’ lucid explanations of not only how to record your sources but why. As she says in the Foreword:

As students, when we were introduced to research principles, we may have been told that identifying sources is important for two reasons. First, we provide “proof” for what we write. Second, we enable others to find what we have used. Both purposes are valid, but they miss the most critical point of all:

We identify our sources–and their strengths and weaknesses–so we can reach the most reliable conclusions. (10)

In the next 700+ pages, she walks us through the documentation of every imaginable kind of source, from a quilt to a videogame. Not interested only in the “output” of a clear and useful footnote or bibliography, Mills starts with the “input”–the steps we must take while researching to record and evaluate each source…and to maintain the flexibility to re-evaluate it later on, as our knowledge and range of contexts grow.

She also reminds us that “family-history standards require a higher level of proof than does most litigation” (18) and in fact can accept no margin of error at all, because “Correct identification is the foundation upon which all else rests.” (19)

If you’ve never had a systematic introduction to research, this book is your crash course. If you’ve been over all this stuff before, but don’t always remember how to apply it, here is your right-hand helper. Far more than a set of templates–though plenty of those are provided–this book is a thorough course on the fundamentals of sound research and evidence analysis.

For someone like me, moonlighting out of my own field, it’s a very powerful torch.

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