Saturday, August 15, 2015

Why Pinterest is Not Research: Documentation Methods

Student: Ms. K, is Wikipedia a source?
Me: It's a little more complicated than that, Billy
Student: Darnit
And then I make this face

For those of us in the teaching profession, this conversation might happen. As an English teacher I hear this about once a "paper." The answer is much more complicated in a simple yes or no, and I can see the confusion that arises from that...source?

In the past, research for reenacting was in the hands of a select few who had access to or could afford primary sources or their reprints. They had the time to read each article, ponder upon the visual imagery in fashion plates. Those that could allocate their resources to such endeavors could be considered experts. We knew them by name in the reenacting community.

The Internet turned that system around. Now nearly every person has access to sources and can view them with the proper search terms. Accessible Archives, Google Books, and Project Guttenburg have all made the past more accessible to the average reenactor. A person today could spend 6 months completing the amount of research that would have taken 6 years before the internet. I'm a bit of a socialist I suppose-sharing research betters everyone. Yet there are still drawbacks to this system.

Any random person can interpret sources today. Some people will misread, misinterpret, and then mismanage the information. This is quite obvious on Facebook, where valid news stories such as "Chemical Blasts Rock China" can mix with the ridiculous "Obama Invites Lizard People to White House."

I am writing this almost a year after my post Ethical Business Practices of the Reenacting Community. There has been growth in terms of documentation, and I am happy to see that happen in at least a few of the vendors (myself included-I'm going back and adding!). While it is a long process to change, I'm a bit dismayed to see a few people making research mistakes. Aha! An easy fix!
I fix things around the farm too!
Photo by Ken Giorlando's ghost camera

Have you heard the rule of 3? 3 sources and it existed? While the reenacting community does not subscribe to a specific research method, we do typically have a consensus about a few facts:

1. Just because a picture exists, doesn't mean it was widespread/dated properly.
2. Just because one quote about it exists, doesn't mean it was widespread.
3. Just because a museum labeled it as a certain date, doesn't mean it was widespread/dated properly.

With that, I've come up with my own cross-reference research method that works well for my jewelry and could possibly apply to other areas within reenacting. I do have a rule of 3...I typically require 3 DIFFERENT FORMS OF PRIMARY DOCUMENTATION. Not just a single quote from Arthur's Home Magazine. I may be completely crazy, but I'm also SELLING my jewelry, and I have an obligation to my customers and the reenacting community as a whole. So here are the three forms of primary documentation that I collect to understand the jewelry/context:

Photographic-(CDV'S, daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, and etc.) This form of evidence offers the who of 19th century jewelry. The piece will give answers as to the lady wearing it, including possibly her station in life/age/geographic area. It proves without a doubt that a piece was worn; however, it does not necessarily show the item’s materials or fine details. This evidence is the most difficult to collect as photographs from the time period can be somewhat blurry or difficult to date. (If I cannot find this source, sometimes I continue with my research).

Textual-(Magazines, Advertisements, Paintings) This documentation answers the when and where. The advantage to this form of evidence is that words can describe both material and some details, though unlike surviving originals, the details can difficult to pin down. With paintings, an artist can give more details of jewelry. Textual sources also include a definitive date, which is sometimes impossible with photographic images and surviving (unmarked) jewelry.

Surviving Originals-These are jewelry pieces that have survived from the time period and are photographed today or in the recent past. This is the most detailed form of evidence, offering the what and how of a jewelry piece. Surviving originals can reveal exact dimensions, working mechanism, and precise materials, unlike other forms of evidence. We can also track variants from an original design. The most unfortunate part of this documentation is the lack of dates; a piece will often lack a specific date of creation, unless marked by a particular jewelry.

Notice that I can answer the following questions with this type of research: who, what, when, where, and how. By putting all of these together, we can discover the why of jewelry. That's why I publish research alongside my jewelry;  from these different sources, we can understand the context of the time period as a whole. The shiny things are important!

Despite the entirety of online texts, museum collections, and other sources, there are those that STILL only find one source to justify anything. Or worse, they use one source to justify a multitude of things. So here are a few of the pitfalls of research, and ways to avoid them. If you see one, this may be an example of an RNI...Research Needing Improvement.

~Look at my Pinterest board!~
Problem: Pinterest is literally a board. Think of it as a junk drawer: anything goes. It links to a million different places on the internet. A person can "decide" to label a source in any way. Here's a fun example:
Doesn't that seem legitimate? That website has the word Victorian in it! And it's on someone's board entitled "reenactment dresses." I'll take one with a rayon snood please!
Way to improve: Here is a specific link that I have taken from my Pinterest board. I have personally chased down the source to prove that it is not written by a monkey.

~But __________ said it was okay!He/She is an EXPERT~
Problem: People are surprisingly human. Even the best of the best are prone to a mistake. We are ALL guilty of some misinformation at some point. Here is an example of my own ignorance:
I've seen so-called "experts" make glaring mistakes, a harsh financial mistake for those who follow them (especially if they sell things!). Experts are amazing, but they're human too.
Way to Improve: Hey expert person! Since you know what you're doing, can you point me to a specific source (not just a Pinterest board)? You don't have one, or you want to collect money for sharing research? Well then...I guess you can play in your own sandbox.

~I found one quote/source to support what I do!~
Problem: Unlike those hideous skirt/shirt combos in sutler row, one size source does not fit all. We can find one exception to every rule, though it may appear hideously anachronistic in person. A lack of information means we can't study context.

Way to improve: I see this one quote, it's cool. I'm going to keep looking for other forms of documentation that match up. I can't find one? Maybe I should try something else.***

***Now I don't want to discourage creativity. Sometimes an exception can be an excellent thing to show off at an event. But then, you should really really understand its context as a source in general. Probably not if you're selling stuff.

Another However...
People are not perfect. I know that a few of the items that I sell still need improvement, after months of me working to do so. I try to stick to this process for every new item that I have, though there is quite a disconnect between having my research and publishing it in a form that makes sense. My goal is that vendors especially work to improve themselves. 
Eating Brillo is NOT self improvement

We as a community have complained for some time that inaccurate items are crossing the "threshold" of our events. We cringe when the rayon snood makes the town newspaper. But when it comes to holding vendors/merchants/experts accountable for a lack of documentation...we back off. Sure, that 1980's prom dress is easy to spot. What about that well-known person/admin who didn't post his/her research? (Myself included!). Just ask (a personal message works best) before you purchase/add to your impression. If a person can't really give you any more...then run away. 
Oh darling. They used one quote for everything!
Photo by Ken Giorlando

I hope this post makes vendors reevaluate their goods, experts search for clarity, and the everyday reenactor ask questions. If we want to improve, we must ask it of ourselves and each other.


***Hey new people, try not to worry about all of this. You're new, you're learning. I'm writing these posts so that you will ask questions. Also I'd like vendors to come clean with their business practices so you can save. Money is tight right now, let's not support those people attempting to make quick money off of new, unsuspecting reenactors. If you're feeling overwhelmed, take a look at my button-in-the-back dress above, and realize that even the most haughty reenactor has a picture like it!


  1. Great post! I know some people just google keywords in google books and use those excerpts without ever considering the full context of the book, the location, the author, etc. Drives me nuts. :D

  2. Another good 'un from the Victorian Needle!
    By the way, I do like to eat Brillo Pads, too.

  3. I always love reading your posts. This is awesome, and such a good thing to help newbies avoid pitfalls! :D



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