On Compromised Sources and Knowing Nothing

As week two of grad school gets fully underway, I definitely shouldn’t be taking up time to write this. This is just for fun, though I’m not altogether sure when “fun” and “writing a blog post about history” became the same thing, or when “relaxing” involved doing the same thing I’m assigned to do for a class. Ah, well, things change. Isn’t that what history is all about?

During today’s Methods class, a classmate who works with modern history brought up that her primary resources are frequently documents that have been recently declassified. Many of these have been, at least in part, intentionally redacted by the government. As we were discussing how to use a document that has been blacked out in what seems like essential places, the thought struck me—isn’t all of history a redacted document?

My research interest lies in the 18th century, a time period from which adequate primary source materials still exist to complete meaningful research. However, instead of dealing with purposefully blacked out spaces, I must contest with gaps in time and matter. Missing documents, items that no longer exists, artifacts that weren’t properly preserved and now no longer exist—these all constitute the blanks that exist on these modern, declassified documents.

Time period of focus notwithstanding, there are other cases of this. As you begin to explore more obscure or marginalized branches of history, the blackness becomes increasingly prevalent. Given the nature of the study of history, a great many people and opinions were obscured from the pages that have created our history. As John Howard commented in 2001, “…queer history was not always documented. Letters were burned, lives went unremarked.”[1] While this is not an intentional redacting of information, it results in essentially the same thing. What makes these gaps any less tangible than those blacked out lines my classmate faces? A perspective won’t be seen, a voice not heard, an opinion discredited because there isn’t concrete evidence to support its existence.

While historians attempt to compile a truthful account of something, what are the implications of these gaps? Does it necessarily mean that the historian needs to inject additional interpretation? Is there a situation where a historian can allow the eloquence of the absences to tell a unique story? Is there any way for historians to address the gaps and blacknesses they face, and still have a meaningful conversation, fully aware of the fact that they’re all working within a potentially compromised set of circumstances? As I sit here blinking, wide-eyed, trying to think about this, the Tootsie Pop owl comes to mind. And all I can conclude is hey, “the world may never know.”


[1] John Howard, introduction to Modern American Queer History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 10.

1 Comment

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One Response to On Compromised Sources and Knowing Nothing

  1. I salute your excellent instincts! Just recognizing that there are always blank spots, and that even the most complete historical “record” will always have silences, gaps and voids takes you further down the road to becoming a more insightful historian. Indeed I would suggest that first acknowledging and then finding meaning in the silences is as important and can be even more challenging (in some ways) than coming to terms with sources that are deliberately redacted in an obvious way. I hope you decide to relax with a blog post again soon!

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