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.


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10 Responses

  1. peter says:

    is it possible that whoever quoted them in the 1980s made copies, or at least notes, and would be willing to share them?

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    The answer appears to be no.

  3. Alfred says:

    That’s a tragic story. I’m always sorry to hear about documents being lost, particularly in recent times.

    Historians face this every once in a while. Didn’t Edmund Morgan deal with some colonial Virginia records that were destroyed during the Civil War in American Slavery–American Freedom? I thought Morgan used the work of a historian from antebellum Virginia who had used the records and explained why he was relying on them.

    My guess would be that the best answer would be a combination of 1, 3, and 4 — discuss this problem at some point in the introduction (or perhaps in the notes depending on how much you rely on them). Then discount them as appropriate. The question is what’s appropriate….

    The amount of weight to give them is partly determined by how reliable the other historian’s account of them is, no? Are you concerned that they weren’t transcribed accurately? That contradictory quotes were omitted and, thus, these are incomplete/misleading statements of Bingham’s thoughts?

  4. reader says:

    I also think a combination of 3 and 4 would be appropriate, unless you have other reasons for doubting the accuracy of the sources from the 1980s.

  5. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Well, I have no good reason to doubt the accuracy of the quotations, and it’s not as if they contain bombshells. They really just add color to the story, but they’d add a lot more if I could read the original documents.

  6. Dan says:

    I think #3 is enough. You are a scholar, who must make the choice about what seems reasonable for your own book. Other scholars may reasonably disagree with some of your choices. But so long as you are transparent about the issues relating to the letters, then no one can accuse you of being an irresponsible or careless scholar.

  7. I agree, # 3. Unless you have some reason to think that the prior scholars were irresponsible or capable of intentional misrepresentation, you should use the best resources you have available. However, much like courtroom testimony, you should give only as much weight to the statements as the credibility of the source deserves.

  8. Dissent says:

    I would go with #1 and #3, but I wouldn’t say to view the quotes with a grain of salt because if you don’t give the quotes more credence than that, you probably shouldn’t be incorporating them. Let readers form their own opinion of how much weight to give the material once you’ve explained the issue that the original documents are not available for verification.

  9. Logan Roise says:

    I would use them but explain in a footnote that you couldn’t review the original documents. Like Dan said, some readers/scholars will disagree with whatever decision you make so in the end you just need to explain why you feel you made the right decision (whatever that ends up being).

  10. A.J. Sutter says:

    “[Q:]is it possible that whoever quoted them in the 1980s made copies, or at least notes, and would be willing to share them? [A:] The answer appears to be no.” The question is a compound question — to which part does the negative apply? And why?

    If the original author is unavailable because he or she has passed away or can’t be found, then maybe #3 is OK (with, as Dissent suggests, maybe a more moderate caveat than the “grain of salt”).

    Maybe the same if the author is alive but claims the notes were lost in a move, house fire, etc. — but this is already not sounding good. If he or she claims not to have made copies or notes at all, that seems odd, don’t you think? And if the author claims they exist but refuses to share them, that’s creepy. Or if you just prefer not to ask the author, that’s not good either.

    In those cases, I’d go with #2 — especially since all the quotes do is add interesting but nonessential details, if I understand your metaphor correctly. I’m writing a book currently myself and have foregone tasty bits in exactly this context. Also, discovering multiple examples of citations to wrong editions in celebrated works of scholarship (e.g., quotes from 5th editions claiming to be from 1st editions in a context where the dates of the quotes are important), has made me very queasy about borrowing quotes of primary sources from secondary ones.

    A less draconian possibility is to exile all your discussion of the quotes (and attendant caveats) to a discursive footnote, leaving them out of the main text altogether.