Have you ever read a juicy news article about a celebrity scandal and noticed all the questions that pop into your head? You’re scanning for detail and it’s not there, so you start reading between the lines, trying to imagine the geography of the minutia you crave.
This is a constant state of being for historians, but we don’t just read between the lines in stories about celebrities. We do it for all of history, for everyday people, events, and communities. We’re always searching for what’s left out of the historic record because far more is left out than is put in. There are lots of reasons for that and sometimes these reasons lead to clues about the missing information.
Time is probably the biggest factor involved in information being left out of historic records. If each of us spent every waking moment documenting our lives, we wouldn’t get much living done.
A lot of people simply aren’t interested in sharing their lives. They don’t believe their lives are important enough to document, they enjoy their privacy, or they are drawn to other activities.
Some may be interested, but don’t have the means to share. Maybe they’d like to keep a journal, but don’t think they write well enough. Perhaps they’d like to document their lives in photos, but don’t own a camera. Maybe they think there will be no audience for the documentation they produce, so why bother?
Historians even encounter problems with records provided by those who do share. No one shares one-hundred percent of their lives for a variety of reasons. Mundane stuff, like dog walking or house cleaning, doesn’t typically make the cut. Societal convention and taboo can keep people from sharing details related to sex, health, or bathroom habits. Embarrassment and shame over secrets and scandals can strangle the desire to create a full and honest historic account.
Sometimes we end up with gaps in history because records have been destroyed, either by accident or on purpose.
Even if a great historic record has been produced, there can be problems with access to it. Museums, for all the wonderful collections they do have, aren’t able to collect everything. If a journal remains in a family’s private files, whatever it contains leaves a hole in the historic record until it is made public. Maybe the bulk of a person’s papers end up in one institution, but the journal got separated and was donated to another museum and the two organizations don’t realize it. It’ll take a diligent researcher to make that connection.
Practically speaking, what can we do about all that has been left out of the historic
record? How do we build a story from what’s missing? We start with the questions that pop into our heads. But good historians don’t stop there. They keep going, trying to answer those questions by actively seeking other sources and by making note of any new questions that arise. They think about what’s typical in life and try to figure out whether their subject lived in a typical fashion or deviated from the norm.
For example, it has been typical throughout much of history for young adults to get married and have children. If you have an account of a young woman’s life and a husband is not mentioned, but children are, does that mean she had the children out of wedlock or the husband is no longer around? If he is no longer around, why? Did the couple divorce? Did he leave? Did he die? What’s typical shifts with time, of course, so if you’re studying a young woman of today who has children but no husband, it could be that she chose in vitro fertilization rather than marriage.
Historians merely systematize and analyze the questions that naturally arise when reading historic records. What’s left out actually provides a thrilling mystery to solve. And we do love a good mystery.
-By Mary Warner
The article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Volume 26, Number 1, 2013.