how much do you trust records?

We’ve had students in an anthropology class working in the Archives this semester on a variety of projects having to do with the Independence Mine (Alaska Pacific Consolidated Mining Company records, to be more precise.) They’ve been a really fun crew to have around.

We had a request from one of the students today for some copies of oral history transcripts from the collection. Now, when I (Arlene) make copies, I don’t really read the documents I’m copying, but things still occasionally jump off the page at me. And a paragraph from one of the Joe Sertich transcripts really jumped off the page at me.

I want to switch thoughts for a second. When we teach about primary sources and how to identify and use them, one of the things we’re really careful to discuss is how researchers need to think about bias. What perspectives might have influenced the creation of the document? Is there “spin?” It’s really important to assess these sorts of things when using primary source material–well, secondary too, for that matter–because it may affect the conclusions you’re able to draw from information you’re seeing. So that’s all well and good, until you see something like the paragraph I just tripped across. I’ll copy it out for you. Mr. Sertich was talking about the various people he’d worked with at the mine.

(Quick note: the following quote includes some mild profanity.)

I got to tell you about another deal that was instituted up there at the Independence Mine. Of course, things were going along in great shape and this started, now, oh, it was probably about the middle of, maybe late in the year of 1938, and I don’t know how this was ever instigated, who had started this, but a fellow came up there from Seattle. He was an older guy and he was supposed to be the efficiency expert. Well, that’s all the miners needed was an efficiency expert, and especially, when they put that handle on them. Well, he was a nice enough old guy, but he didn’t fit in with our miner’s thinking at all. So they came up with these little forms. Every miner had to fill it out at the end of the shift, his name, the date, the stope or drift or raise you were working in, and how many caps you used, blasting caps, how many sticks at so many percent dynamite, how many feet of lagging, and how many feet of timber, and how many cars of ore or muck were mucked out or rock, or whatever it happened to be.

Of course, all of us pretty much resented it. I don’t know that we resented it, it just seemed to us that we didn’t need an efficiency expert there after the mine was pretty well established and on a paying basis, and boy we used to screw up those forms deliberately. Heck, and I don’t know what he ever did with them. I found some of those forms laying around years after. I think when I was up there in ’76 there was a bunch of those forms laying all over. I think he was just there to have a job, and I don’t think he was doing anything to make that mine any more efficient. I don’t know how much he knew about mining, but he was kind of a pariah around there, nobody ever, hardly ever talked to him. I don’t know, we just figured he was way-to-hell over left field where he belonged and nobody was going to have anything to do with him. And there were times when the guys would, hell they’d have more darn dynamite that they blasted up in one day, or timber that they used, say 20 feet of timber, they’d probably put 40 or 50. And, here they were using more material up in the mine than ever came up the hill. Drove him kind of crazy. I guess he used to add and subtract these things, and I don’t know what he ever did with them.

 My reaction to this is mixed. At the same time I find it really funny, I’m also kind of freaked out. I’m used to looking for bias, teaching how to look for bias, especially in personal records, but I think a lot of us tend to assume that corporate records are somehow cleaner. More accurate. In this collection, I’ve seen some of these forms that the miners filled out. And if I were assessing them for bias, I’d figure that miners might be exaggerating a little as to how much ore or such they’d pulled out of the mine to make their productivity look better. But it would never have occurred to me that they might be flat-out lying about the amounts of materials they consumed while working!

I’m not sure what the lesson here is. I’m not sure my take-away for students and researchers should be to assume the documents are totally and completely wrong, deliberately falsified. Maybe the lesson is (and it’s one I really, really like) is to remember the archivist’s secret weapon: context.  If you were to review other records that came from the mine that year–say, the purchasing records–it would become very clear very quickly that something was amiss, that it would be very difficult for the miners to be using double the dynamite that the mine was bringing in. Part of the reason I like this lesson is that for a long time I’ve thought it was dangerous for a researcher to rely on a single archival document and not read or assess the surrounding and related material when tracking down answers. It’s part of the reason I argue against item-level description for documents sometimes: we really shouldn’t be encouraging researchers–especially new ones–to ignore context and surrounding information that might provide a more realistic view of what was actually happening.

But that’s a different soapbox for a different day. At any rate, the next time somebody comes in to research in the miners’ logs, I hope they’ll understand that some of the documents might not be all that realistic. That if they’re looking at productivity, they’re going to need to use more than just these.

But really.  The part of my brain that found this amusing is the part of my brain that was cheering the miners on. Who hasn’t wanted to do this occasionally in the face of an efficiency expert when you think you’re doing your job just fine?

Footnote to Dean Rollins: I would never, ever do this on our departmental annual report. Ever. Really.

One thought on “how much do you trust records?

  1. Brings to remembrance the old adage: People tell stories, but documents don’t lie (i.e. unless they’ve been falsified!)

    Historically, miners have been notorious liars, purposeful or not. Miner’s logs, documents & forms aside, the oft quote definition of a mine is: A hole in the ground over which stands a liar!

    Nice work Arlene.

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