Wonky Scholarship Question
Here’s a problem that I’d like some help on from my fellow scholars. I noted in a prior post that as part of my research for the John Bingham biography, I was looking for his correspondence with Titus Basfield, an African-American college classmate who was a lifelong friend.
So I’ve determined that: (1) these letters did exist; and (2) that they were probably destroyed about 15 years ago. (I’m not totally convinced that they were destroyed, but it looks like that story that your Dad tells you about how he could have retired on his baseball card collection if your grandmother hadn’t thrown them away while cleaning the basement one day. Sigh.)
The issue is that these letters were quoted in articles and in a book written during the 1980s. How should I treat these quotations? I see a few options:
1. Use them and cite to the secondary source. The fact that I can’t check the original letters is irrelevant.
2. Don’t use them. If you can’t check the original sources, then the quotes are unreliable.
3. Explain the situation in the Introduction or in the first endnote and state that I’m going to use the quotes but they they should be viewed with a grain of salt.
4. Only use the quotes if they are consistent with other things that Bingham said. If they seem novel or inconsistent, then don’t use them.