Friday, April 2, 2010

Hack Historian, a rant

I've been fact-checking a list of historical trivia for a local publication, and was having a hard time tracking down some of the statements, so I asked the editor if the compiler of the list could provide me with his documentation to make it a little easier for me. Knowing where he got a given piece of information allows me to do two things: verify that he didn't transpose any numbers or mispell a name, and determine whether the source is credible.

The editor responded that the compiler acknowledged, "quite a few of the facts you will struggle to corroborate because they were found in strange places and that he hasn't kept notes." Well, that explained a lot, I said, and then, assuming that this must be a volunteer, and clearly someone with no training in doing history research, I offered to provide guidance next year to improve the accuracy of the list.

Then I found out that my assumptions were wrong, and that I had given the guy way too much benefit of the doubt. The editor informed me that this person, whom I will decline to name, is "actually a fairly well-known Saint Paul historian and has published a few books on Saint Paul history. He teaches history . . . [at a respectable local college]," the editor said. "He used to be a Minnesota legislator," she added, as if this somehow boosted his veracity (politicians don't ever get their facts wrong, right?). But the real kicker for me was when she added,  "He said he didn't see these history facts as needing the same rigorousness of note taking as a research book, and I tend to agree with him."

I was flabbergasted. I had spent a total of about 8 hours trying to verify the accuracy of this list, and in that time had gotten through about 35 of them, and found 5 to be flat-out wrong. I sat and stared at that message for a few minutes, then replied: "OK. That's interesting. Since I've been finding a lot of errors, it raises the question, how important is it to you that these facts be accurate?"

I became a little obsessed. I googled the guy, I looked at some of the books he's had published -- none by historical society presses, that I could find. I searched the faculty directory of the college where he was said to teach and did not find him (that could have been a flaw in the college's search engine, of course, but still, it made me wonder . . .). Some of the books were clearly commissioned works, like the history of an organization. Now sometimes, people do an excellent job with such commissions, and for all I know, his commissioned history work could be very good. But what I came to believe is that he's a hack historian -- one who works only for pay, not for the love of history or out of a heartfelt desire to help tell the story of his community.

The editor responded to my comment about errors with some contrition. She admitted that she had found a couple of errors in the spelling of names in the list he submitted last year, and she rememebered that I had also. She wondered whether I was exasperated with her.

I was not -- I was exasperated with him. It appeared to me that he was applying a lower standard to the work he did for her than he does for his own books, which, if true, is incredibly arrogant.

I have encountered this sort of thing before. Writers who have established for themselves a good reputation, who have impressive credentials (ie, initials after their name), who command a high price for their work, are often not such good writers; and if they deign to write for you at a lower rate than that to which they are accustomed, they measure their words accordingly and give you exactly what they deem to be your money's worth.

Of course everyone is entitled to make a decent living, and some people are stuck in jobs that give them no joy but they slog along and do the best they can. But if you are fortunate enough to get paid to do something that many talented and dedicated people do for no money -- writing, art, and, yes, even history research -- then recognize that it's your good fortune, and not your innate superiority, that put you in that position, and rise to the standard of your profession.

Sorry. Just had to get that rant out!


  1. How infuriating. But, at least you are checking the facts at all. Here in the UK most publications don't have any fact checkers. I'd like to say that they take extra care but hm....
    Different attitude, I think.

    I just wrote an article for Smithsonian magazine. I had not only to provide my sources but photocopies of the sources and sometimes the whole context, e.g. a chapter. That was hard work

  2. Your Smithsonian article was very well-written, and it was obviously well-researched. I really enjoyed it. It's nice to know they have such high standards.

  3. I can see why you were upset- teaching at the university level makes me very careful as I want to be a role model and credit sources and provide accurate information- to me this is about trust.
    A well done rant Sharon-


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