A Proof Argument? Why Bother?



18 March 2015

A recent discussion of proof arguments triggered a common question: Why can’t we just ‘let the documents do the talking’?

Unfortunately, documents don’t talk. They may lie, but they do not talk and they cannot speak for themselves.

Most historical documents are inanimate objects. They can’t coordinate themselves to eliminate conflicts. They don’t correlate their own assertions. They don’t challenge each other’s ‘statements of fact’—or their lies. Many are written in a foreign language called Yesteryear and need a skilled translator. Many others present words in ways that were confusing at the time they were created and still need sorting out. Documents, individually, are puzzles, riddles, and enigmas. As a body, they are silent witnesses until we tease the evidence from them.

A proof argument is the mechanism that gives documents a voice. That mechanism requires researchers—not paper collectors, not preservationists, but researchers—to make the case. They need us to analyze their wording, correlate their details, resolve the conflicts between them, and present their evidence in a fashion that the world finds credible. In the end, it is that action on our part that makes us researchers, not collectors or preservationists.


PHOTO CREDITS: "Pile of Folders," PresenterMedia (http://www.presentermedia.com/index.php?target=closeup&id=6706&categoryid=135&maincat=clipart : downloaded 7 March 2015), item 6706; used under license.

Jade's picture
Documents, context

Thank you for the brief highlights of this huge subject.

Documents nearly always require detailed and accurate description of their nature, well beyond simply giving a citation.  What caused their creation; what was the purpose; what were consequences of their import; what were consequences of being incomplete or partly inaccurate; what else would explain a sparse docket entry . . . ?  So often they require the researcher to dig more deeply into context.



EE's picture
You're right, Jade. That word

You're right, Jade. That word context is critical to understanding a record, to correlating it properly with other sources, and to reaching a conclusion about a problem.

The Editor