[SIGCIS-Members] how to document history mistakes? (was Re: Issason, Acknowledgements, and Crowdsourcing)

Jeremy C. Reed reed at reedmedia.net
Thu Oct 9 08:18:46 PDT 2014

On Wed, 8 Oct 2014, Mike Willegal wrote:

> Though we are lucky enough to be able to talk to many people that 
> experienced the events, first hand, I have found that interviews done 
> 30, 40 or 50 years after the fact is fraught with the difficulty of 
> people remembering exactly what happened.  Many people ?remember? what 
> has been most frequently reported over the past decade or so.  
> Researchers in Civil War history have found the same thing and are 
> more and more relying upon contemporary evidence such as journals, 
> newspapers and letters.

For the book I am authoring, I started keeping track of mistakes, such 
as wrong dates and misspelled names, in my sources, including from 
previous "history" articles and books and my own interviews. I have 
found only around 20 mistakes. In some cases, I have found that my 
interviewees have misstated facts and dates (in most cases from the 
events they personally participated in the 1970s and 1980s).  I have 
gone back to the interview subjects with my other cited facts and they 
have agreed with me, but they state that they don't remember.

Some of the mistakes are in the contemporary documents (such as 
misspelled surnames in court documents) or history papers having wrong 
dates or misarranged chronologies (such as saying some software was 
invented after it was shipped) even when only a couple years removed 
from the events.

Do you have any advice on how to document history mistakes, so later 
researchers don't hit the same issues -- or so later historians don't 
follow the wrong path? Some ideas I have considered are to add footnotes 
or comments to my bibliography that explain that the cited source or 
even sources misspelled some name or stated a wrong date and then 
explain briefly where the correct or assumed correct details came from.

I don't think I want to explain about the mistakes in the content itself 
as it will be distracting.

A different type of mistake is where someone acknowledges someone more 
significantly than they deserve or maybe more than the recipient 
believes. In other words, taking more credit and giving more credit than 
is due. For example, for over 30 years, for a software technology, 
various "stories", corresponding release notes, and histories said a 
developer had invented the work. When I interviewed him, he told me he 
didn't know why the developer who really did the good work gave him the 
credit but he wanted me to be clear in my work that the other person was 
the proponent and key inventor behind the technology.  I wasn't able to 
interview the other person, but since my contact did fully partipate in 
this software technology, I plan to use his version of the story. 
Explaining about the different versions of the story may be distracting 
in my book. (But also thinking about it from another view -- maybe both 
of them wanted to credit the other.)

For what it is worth, the person who documented the credit is well known 
for acknowledging many others in his detailed software release notes, 
interviews, and documentation.  It has been very useful for me to find 
others to interview -- but in many cases, they told me their work was 
insignificant. I guess some people like to give credit to many others 
for their own work, which may cause mistakes in history.

How do you document history mistakes?

  Jeremy C. Reed

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