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

Dag Spicer dspicer at computerhistory.org
Thu Oct 9 09:33:35 PDT 2014

HI Jeremy,

One great approach is to use a website to document errors found.

Don Knuth has done this for nearly two decades for his various books.

See: http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/taocp.html  viz. “Errata and Addenda."

Seems like the best way to record and disseminate known issues with a book or other scholarly work.  If you want, like Don, you can even offer to pay people a token amount for finding new errors—most people who have received one of Don’s famous checks never cash them anyway, so impressed are they that they found an error!

Dag Spicer
Senior Curator
Computer History Museum
Editorial Board, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing
1401 North Shoreline Boulevard
Mountain View, CA 94043-1311

Tel: +1 650 810 1035
Fax: +1 650 810 1055

Twitter: @ComputerHistory

On Oct 9, 2014, at 8:18 AM, Jeremy C. Reed <reed at reedmedia.net<mailto:reed at reedmedia.net>> wrote:

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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