Monday, June 4, 2018

Oops!: Reconciling Old Data and New Information

By Heather Adkins and Elinor Madeira

Image 29895 – “168150-Roll Call,” Souvenir Post Card Co., 1908, #WM213, Looking Back at Tennessee Photograph Collection, ca. 1890-1981.

We all make mistakes every now and then, and archivists are no exception. However, when history professionals make mistakes, the repercussions for future research are detrimental. Historians strive to provide correct information, but in a profession built around analysis of data, interpretations can vary widely. The following is an example of one such record that inspired different interpretations.

Image WM213 Image Card - “Roll Call” Slaves, 1908, #WM213, Looking Back at Tennessee Photograph Collection, ca. 1890-1981.

This image comes from the earliest trips of Looking Back at Tennessee in 1986. Much like today’s programs, archivists visited local communities to gather information on personal records and make duplicates to keep at the Library and Archives. Information gathered on these trips partly come from the owner of the record. So if the owner is misinformed, the archivist can subsequently record incorrect information. For instance, on the record sheet for this image, the archivist typed “’Roll Call’ Slaves;” however, the image itself does not have “slaves” written on it. The archivist also dated the image as 1908. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, so it would be difficult to say that the subjects of the image were in fact enslaved.

Image Picture Card Splice – You can see the differing information based on the interpretations of the image-owner and the recording archivist.

To compound the issue, when the record was digitized and put on the online photograph database, the metadata writer added to the description of the photo to include, “People known as ‘Roll Call’ slaves.” The image was then picked up by different websites and digital collectors, like Google and Pinterest, where the written information of the image has become “fact” without much further consideration.

Image Photo database – The image is represented differently on the online photograph database than on the original.

Image Pinterest – Pinterest showing the user-posted image as a search result. Accessed May 10, 2018.

There are several ways this image could be interpreted. “Roll Call” could imply that the image is of a school, a church or even a form of community child care. The number of children could shift the interpretation easily in that direction. There are no visible agricultural tools, but it could also be families preparing to work in fields, considering the prevalence of tenant farming and sharecropping in Tennessee at that time. That interpretation is more fabrication. If you look closely at the building, a baby’s pram sits on the porch – small luxuries were most likely not available to enslaved persons. Whatever story could be spun about the image, to say that the subjects are slaves is a label not easily proven.

Image Baby Pram – “168150-Roll Call,” Souvenir Post Card Co., 1908, #WM213, Looking Back at Tennessee Photograph Collection, ca. 1890-1981.

As a rule, when processing photographs, archivists should not interpret an image. For purposes of cataloging and finding a photo, best practice is to describe the image (including any writing) and leave it to researchers how they want to use the image. For example, the “Roll Call” image is also in a collection held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (part of Yale University Library). Their metadata writer describes the image simply, talking briefly about the people in the image and the building (see below). It could be added to the description the number of children and adults, that some are sitting or standing and where, the separation of gender in their placement and the second building in the background.

Image Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library – “Guide to Randolph Linsly Simpson African-American Collection JWJ MSS 54, Series I. Visual Material. Online:

So how do we reconcile when mistakes are made? First, we understand that new information becomes available all the time, and that is a good thing! Second, we compare the new and old data to see if information and analysis still align. Lastly, we admit when we are mistaken.

If you find something in our online material you think might be incorrect, please let us know. We will do our best to update our online information. Contact us here:

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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