Sources, Information, Evidence

 
 
 
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Carul
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Sources, Information, Evidence

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the differences between sources, information, and evidence. It seems to me that evidence and information are the same.  If a source gives me information for whatever I'm researching, that’s evidence. If I'm searching colonial correspondence from AC at the Archives Nationales and I found a reference to the colonial official I'm studying, that's information/evidence I can use to build his biography. What's the difference?

 

 

 

EE
EE's picture

Carul,

Good question. It's a distinction many people have trouble with when they first begin to think about the nature of their evidence—a point we typically reach when we realize that our evidence badly contradicts itself or when we hit a brick wall in our research. Assuming that you have already seen QuickLesson 13: Classes of Evidence—Direct, Indirect & Negative, we'll build on the basics from that lesson:

Information is what a source says. It’s the physical words that appear on paper or the precise words that are spoken by a source.  Evidence is our interpretation of what that information is telling us.

As a very basic example, let’s say that a probate case tells us that someone died and left three children; two  had reached the age of majority and the third was still an infant. Those statements provide information, which different readers might interpret in different ways:

  • One reader might interpret that to mean (a)  the youngest child was, say, a toddler or younger; and (b) the vast difference in years between Adult Children 1 and 2 and Infant 3 likely means they had different mothers.
  • Another reader, versed in legal terminology, would interpret those same words to mean that the decedent had two children over 21 and one child  under 21 years of age.

As another example of the effect that interpretation has upon the information we gather, we might use the records you specifically mentioned: The correspondence you’ve found may mention, in the right time frame, a man of the same name as the one you’re studying, but that does not mean it is your man.  The correspondence gives you information about someone of that name. You then must interpret whether or not it is evidence about your person or whether it relates to some other same-name person.

From our own work in that same set of records, we can offer a "real, live" example: various records in those files from the 1720s refer to an official identified as Director of Mines for the Company of the Indies. The given name, when it appears, is variously spelled as Philipe, Philippe, etc. The surname appears variously as Renaud, Renauld, Renaudière, etc—and all these variations are sometimes prefaced with the particle  de, sometimes by de la, sometimes by La.  As you would know, such variances are typical of the phonetic spelling of the era. Most historians who have used these records have assumed that all these references dealt with the same man. They don’t. Two separate men of very similar name successively held that same post.* 

Does this help?

*Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Parallel Lives: Philippe de la Renaudière and Philippe (de) Renault, Directors of the Mines, Company of the Indies,” The Natchitoches Genealogist 22 (April 1998): 3–18;  archived at E. S. Mills, Historic Pathways (http://www.historicpathways.com/download/paralives.pdf).

The Editor

ACProctor
ACProctor's picture

Re: "Information is what a source says....", I just want to comment that this one sentence is very useful as well being quite succinct.

My background is a software one but we have a very similar distinction there. The words may be different but we regularly talk of (raw-)data as the stuff with no interpretation, and information as the parts extracted, or yielded through analysis, that inform us of something useful; typically to optimise performance or correct faults.

I just thought the comparison was interesting, and might be useful when casting a wider net  :-)

Tony

ACProctor
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...sorry, I meant "paragraph", not "setence"

EE
EE's picture

Tony, your software-industry analogy beautifully parallels the world of historical research.

  • Our "raw data" are our sources.
  • The "parts [we] extract" are our information.
  • Analysis of that information will then "inform us of something useful": the evidence that we will use to form the conclusion we call proof.

Thanks for sharing the analogy.

The Editor