Finding Saxe Gotha

What is history and why do historians write footnotes? At one level, history is everything that ever happened in the past. At another level history includes the historical records of events. For instance, some folk write letters or keep diaries, which record events. There are many sources of historical evidence including photographs, paintings, museum artifacts, maps, buildings, and even stories past down from generation to generation. All of these sources of evidence belong in what we call the historical record. There is yet a third level of history, which includes interpretation of historical evidence. We often forget that history is more than just the facts-that it is also an interpretive art. With different perspectives, two historians interpret the same set of facts differently. When historians write history, they footnote primary and secondary sources to leave a trail of reasoning for others to follow.

You see, sometimes it is difficult to understand historical sources with our contemporary perspectives. Quite often the historical record is incomplete. Many times historical sources contradict other sources. The big idea is that when historians study history they visit people from other times. History is so challenging because historical understanding depends on the historical record, which is incomplete. Historical understanding also depends on knowing the languages and customs of far away times, which produced the facts. But how do historians write history when sources are missing? How do historians write history when they do not know the languages and customs of far away places and times? How do historians know what happened when facts don't agree?

The answer to these questions is that historians exhaustively weigh all bits and pieces of evidence to determine the trustworthiest facts. Historians search endlessly for missing records that fill in gaps of knowledge. They learn to understand historical facts as the people living would have understood them. And what do historians do at the end of the day when there are still missing and contradictory sources of information, and when there are still nuances of language that are simply not known? They make the best interpretation of the historical record they can. It is important for historians to footnote their sources of historical evidence so others can see why historians make their claims. Most important, historians want to make sure their research accurately reflects the historical record.

Adventures in Footnotes takes the brave of heart and quick of wit on a thrilling journey. Through time and thought, Adventures in Footnotes closely traces historians' paths from fact to opinion, from source to interpretation. Come along for the ride, but be ready for unexpected twists and turns--sometimes the paths from primary source to secondary interpretation are not so clear as you might think!