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I am a historian and wondering about this (hopefully not too abstruse) question: While historians (and other academics) obviously go through years of training in doctoral programs (including how to read and interpret the sources they use), most of their work in the end is done on their own sitting in a library/office etc in front of sources or the computer. That also means that when doing the actual work of reading sources and interpreting them, they are alone and have to make judgements about these sources on their own. I guess my question is how one deals with this kind of judgement calls (and ideally gets more confident about them)? And is it normal to feel some doubt at times?

To give two examples to make this more easily understandable:

  1. I am working with a particular collection of primary sources at the moment. The documents themselves are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. However, for some reason at times these documents have scribbled notes written in the margins. Some of them are legible and some are not. Now, my own judgement is that these were likely added after the actual documents were written and are not of any consequence to my interpretation. But I am still not a 100% sure. I have asked the archivist and he agrees with my assessment. I plan to possibly also ask colleagues, but it is unlikely that I'll find someone that has much experience working with this collection as it has not really been studied before. The fact that I can't photograph or photocopy anything makes it even more difficult to consult others. Now, do I just have to go with my own judgement here (I would say I am 90% sure that I am correct in terms of my assessment) or will I just not be able to use these files?

  2. I was once in a graduate workshop where we read primary sources together and what amazed me was that three senior professors that attended at times vehemently disagreed about the meaning of certain sources. Now these professors obviously can't hold a workshop for each source they use in their work, so despite the fact that such different interpretations can exist, they will usually just have to go with their judgement I guess and move on. And then only those few people that actually look up the source can see whether the interpretation is actually correct.

I hope I am clear enough. Basically, I am not sure how to balance making sure that I get all sources I use right and having confidence in my own judgement as a scholar. My nightmare would be that due to something like the scribbles mentiones above I get a source completely wrong and then some scholars point that out to my embarassment.

I know that this is a very historian-specific question, but more generally I would think that in any subject where one mainly works alone one would be faced with this dilemma.

Thanks for any advice!

3 Answers 3

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In any discipline one of the most important things you can learn is to be comfortable with the possibility of being wrong.

This is both about becoming confident that your judgements are as good as anyone else, and if you are wrong, then that is not the end of the world, but also about acknowledging that you will never be certain of anything, and that interpretations always carry uncertainty. So be confident in what you think, but also be prepared to change your mind. Likely your scholarly work will contain some judgements that other scholars agree with, or that are reinforced when further information comes to light, and other judgements where the opposite is true. Knowledge rarely progresses by one person coming up with the whole truth in one go, but progresses piecemeal with future scholars taking the best pieces of each of their predecessors' work.

So, in the example you gave, you should write in your work that in your judgement it seems likely that margin notes were likely added after the documents were created, but that you can't be sure. You might like to consider how your interpretation would change if you turn out to be wrong.

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  • Thank you! Two further queries: 1. Unfortunately, in my field I don't really see people putting things like this (in my case the scribbles in the margins) in their text or footnotes. In a sense, this would make things much easier because then I'd have a better idea how to handle it. 2. So in such a case it is unlikely that I'd be accused of willingly ignoring these scribbles if it turns out that they (against what I think) matter in one way or the other (though, again, I am highly doubtful of them changing the meaning of the source in any significant way)
    – Rattata21
    Jun 14, 2023 at 21:45
  • @Rattata21: If people in your field currently don't do something, that doesn't necessarily mean that you can't change that! Unless of course there are specific rules/guidelines that say it's a no go. From what I've read and from Ian's answer, you could add some nuance and that, I think, is really important in any scientific field.
    – BioBrains
    Jun 15, 2023 at 15:46
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Generally speaking, it is near-impossible to be 100% sure that your interpretation of a historical source is the "right" one. No matter how hard you work to make your analysis as correct as possible, there will always be at least one historian that completely disagrees with your analysis. For very recent textual materials (say, from the last 60-80 years) it is much easier to get the interpretation right, because we still have access to a lot of contextual data, and in some cases even the person who wrote the materials might still be alive. But the further back you go in time, it becomes increasingly difficult to interpret the meaning of the words accurately. For very old texts in the medieval or ancient periods, a single misplaced punctuation mark or a single misinterpreted word can completely change the meaning of a sentence or even a whole paragraph.

It just can't be helped. In the same way as scientific research, the field of history is one where each new generation tries to build up upon the work of previous generations. We try to pick up the things that the previous generation got right, and by accessing new materials and new research techniques, we try to correct the misinterpretations and errors found in their papers.

What is really important is that you conduct yourself with absolute professionalism at all times. Even if you find a blatant error in a history paper, always keep in mind that that person(s) was trying to do the best work they could with the resources that they had available at the time. The same is valid for your own historian colleagues still producing papers right now. Each historian has their own set of specialized skills, but they also have aspects in which they are deficient (ex: insufficient foreign language skills), which can lead to misinterpretation of historical texts. In sum, my point is: even if you completely disagree with the methods/interpretive analysis of a colleague, always explain your disagreement with sincere kindness and respect. In the future, if someone finds an error in your work, you would like them to treat you in the same way.

Regarding Question 1, at the very least you have the duty to get a basic idea of what the marginalia is trying to communicate. Even if you don't understand all of the scribbles, try to get a basic grasp of any passages that you can understand and search for other papers that analyze the same materials, to see what they have to say about the marginalia. If you think they are from a much later time period and are thus unrelated to your research topic, then you can safely ignore them. Don't be so quick to assume that these materials have not been studied much before. It is often the case that foreign historians have analyzed the materials and published papers about them in foreign languages. If you can't find any paper that deals with the topic, try to consult with a colleague or a supervisor, or try to contact by email a historian who has analyzed these materials in the past. In that case, when you write a paper, just be honest and mention clearly that you did not take the marginalia into consideration when analyzing the materials, and briefly explain why.

Regarding Question 2, your duty as a historian is to make the process of your interpretation clear to the readers of your paper. Whenever possible, try to provide an excerpt of the original passage in your paper (as a footnote), be brave enough to present your own English translation of the passage, and then explain why you decided on that particular interpretation of the text. Obviously you cannot do this for every single textual passage, but at least you should do this for very important passages that have a direct bearing on the topic of your paper. The reader should be able to follow your train of thought, and then decide whether to accept your interpretation or reject it or correct it. The value of your paper does not necessarily lie in providing the reader with the absolute "right" interpretation of the text: it is about being transparent about the methodological choices that you made when interpreting the text. In this manner, you are providing a service to the reader, you are providing clarity to them, and you are saving them time because they can evaluate your interpretation much more quickly.

Of course, you are still wondering how you can improve the accuracy of your interpretation. The secret is to collect as much information as possible about the context and conditions in which the text was written. The more contextual information you have surrounding the text's production, the easier it will be for you to discard certain interpretations in favor of others. It will also make it easier for you to interpret ambiguous passages. Unfortunately, many historians merely stick to investigating the social and economic conditions surrounding the text's author or the local community. Another potentially problematic "quick fix" solution is to merely apply some general theoretical interpretive framework on top of the text (ex: deconstruction, literary criticism, etc.), without taking into consideration other methods. People are busy, have families to take care of, and other responsibilities, so this situation is somewhat understandable. But if you can, please try to gather contextual information from other fields such as archaeology, environmental history, even paleogenetics. These fields can uncover traces of environmental disasters, epidemics and parasites, economic trade, bad crops, famines, daily habits, mass migrations and burials which can completely change your initial interpretation of the actual text. You can sometimes realize that certain ambiguous or obscure passages of the text are actually referencing times of turmoil and social anxiety caused by various environmental phenomena.

Another thing that you should try to do is take a general look at other prime materials produced around the same time around the same geographic region, and try to get an idea of how the history of that place was before the text was produced, and how it became after the text was produced. This will help you to situate the text in the broader historical conditions/trends of that region. Also try to find texts by other contemporary authors who show a different perspective around the same historical events. Identify which parts agree and disagree, and make them clear to the readers. By multiplying the number of subjective interpretive frameworks, and by multiplying the number of methodological analyses of the same text, you can actually paradoxically get a more objective interpretation, instead of a more subjective one. The more you remain in a methodological echo chamber, without considering competing perspectives, the more likely you are to get something wrong. Of course, you cannot realistically try every single approach. Just do the best you can with the time and resources that you have at your disposal.

Finally, if you are wavering between two or three possible interpretations of a textual passage, explain to the reader the merits and demerits of each one, and then be brave enough to choose one, with courage and dignity, even knowing that in the future you might be proven wrong. By presenting your work with humility, and by identifying the strong points and weak points of your interpretation (i.e., the parts where your hypothesis might be wrong), you will still be respected by your peers, even when you get some things wrong. And make no mistake, you will get some things wrong for sure! Be at peace with that fact.

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  • Thanks so much for this very useful reply! One clarification: If there really is a major issue with a document that I am unsure of, I would point this out in a footnote for sure. But in general in my field an article will usually reference dozens of primary sources and I usually do not see much discursive explanation of primary sources in my area of history. That is partly why I am wondering how to handle it. If I do not have the space to explain, then I am afraid someone might say I was sloppy/dishonest in not further investigating such marginal notes for example.
    – Rattata21
    Jun 15, 2023 at 14:12
  • And just to add: That would then mean that when I make the judgement (even after consulting colleagues etc that work on this specific time period/with these specific documents, I'll likely have to make the decision myself in the end as to whether the marginal scribbles mean anything as noone I know of has worked exactly on these documents), I am afraid of running the risk of getting it wrong and then being criticized for it.
    – Rattata21
    Jun 15, 2023 at 14:14
  • One more detail: These scribbles are literally just two or three Japanese characters (which can't really mean anything that fundamentally changes the document). When I say that they were likely added later, I think not of it being years later or anything like that but rather short notes added by different office clerks that handled and sorted the documents. But, again, that is my own guess. I do not know it for sure (though that is something I am able to and will consult colleagues about).
    – Rattata21
    Jun 15, 2023 at 14:16
  • In that case, it is fine to make a judgement call based on limited information. For example, a footnote such as "The document contains a number of very short glosses added by a different hand, usually two or three Japanese characters, not all of which are legible. Judging from the readable parts, it is highly likely that these words were added by office clerks that were handling the documents, and therefore they were not taken into consideration for this study" would be fine. But again, try to consult with colleagues first, and see if there is any codicological analysis of the document.
    – djohn
    Jun 16, 2023 at 1:04
  • Thanks. Yes, will check with colleagues first. In a sense I would really like it if I could just add such footnotes as you suggest. But in my field journals don't like long footnotes that much (depends on the journal but some at least) and so there are limitations as to how often I can do it or if at all.
    – Rattata21
    Jun 16, 2023 at 5:38
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From my experience as a former public official and historian, the marginal notes in an official document could be from a meeting if it was a report, or the head of the department if it was a memo. In either case is from internal communication, even when it originated from outside the institution. The notes might contain a task and the person entrusted with it as a follow up. Even a doodle might be of interest here. It shows that the person was thinking hard or was bored with the problem. If there are different handwriting styles, it indicates that the memo had been circulating; another clue that you might follow if relevant. So, they are relevant if you are tracing a process or a document.

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