Historical Documentation Guidelines

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These Guidelines link the Standards for Historical Documentation with more specific guidance and technical information. They describe one approach to meeting the Standards for Historical Documentation. Agencies, organizations or individuals proposing to approach historical documentation differently may wish to review their approaches with the National Park Service.

The Guidelines are organized as follows:
Historical Documentation Objectives
Research Design
Integrating Results
Reporting Results
Recommended Sources of Technical Information [Note: Sources are outdated and not included here.]

Historical Documentation Objectives

Documentation is a detailed record, in the form of a report or other written document, of the historical context(s) and significance of a property. Historical research to create documentation uses archival materials, oral history techniques, ethnohistories, prior research contained in secondary sources and other sources to make a detailed record of previously identified values or to investigate particular questions about the established significance of a property or properties. It is an investigative technique that may be employed to document associative, architectural, cultural or informational values of properties. It may be used as a component of structural recording or archeological investigation, to enable interpretation or to mitigate the anticipated loss of a property through conservation of information about its historical, architectural or archeological significance. Documentation generally results in both greater factual knowledge about the specific property and its values, and in better understanding of the property in its historical context. In addition to increasing factual knowledge about a property and its significance in one historical context, documentation may also serve to link the property to or define its importance in other known or yet-to-be defined historic contexts.

Documentation should incorporate, rather than duplicate, the findings of previous research. Research may be undertaken to identify how a particular property fits into the work of an architect or builder; to analyze the historical relationship among several properties; or to document in greater detail the historical contexts of properties. The kinds of questions investigated will generally depend on what is already known or understood and what information is needed. For example, documentation of a bridge whose technological significance is well understood, but whose role in local transportation history is not, would summarize the information on the former topic and focus research on the associative values of the property. The questions that research seeks to answer through deed, map or archival search, oral history and other techniques may also relate to issues addressed in structural documentation or archeological investigation; for example, the reasons for and history of modification of a building to be the subject of architectural or engineering documentation.

Research Design

Historical documentation is guided by a statement of objectives, research design or task directive prepared before research is performed. The research design is a useful statement of how proposed work will enhance existing archival data and permits comparison of the proposed work with the results. The purpose of the research design is to define the proposed scope of the documentation work and to define a set of expectations based on the information available prior to the research. Generally, the research design also ensures that research methods are commensurate with the type, quality and source of expected information. The research design for a property should identify:

1. Evaluated significance of the property(ies) to be investigated;
2. Historical, architectural, archeological, or cultural issues relevant to the evaluated significance of the property;
3. Previous research on t hose issues and how the proposed work is related to existing knowledge;
4. The amount and kinds of information required to produce reliable historical analyses;
5. Methods to be used to obtain the information;
6. Types of sources to be investigated; types of presonnel required;
7. Expected results or findings based on available knowledge about the property and its context; and
8. Relationship of the proposed historical documentation to other proposed treatment activities; for example, recommendations on the use of documentation in interpretive programs or other aspects of treatment such as anticipated architectural, engineering or archeological documentation.

Research Methods

Research methods should be chosen based on the information needs, be capable of replication and be recorded so that another researcher could follow the same research procedure. Sources should be recorded so that other researchers can locate or verify the information discovered during the search.

Use of Sources:The variety of available written and graphic materials and the number of individuals that can serve as sources, including but not limited to personal records, deed and title books, newspapers, plats, maps, atlases, photographs, vital records, censuses, historical narratives, interviews of individuals and secondary source materials, should be considered in developing the research design. Part of the development of the research design is deciding what kinds of source materials are most likely to contain needed information and at what point in the research process that information will be most valuable. For example, often secondary sources are most valuable for gathering background information, while primary sources are more useful to gather or confirm specific facts. The documentation goals may not require exhaustive investigation of sources, such as deed records or building permits. Research may be kept cost-effective by making careful decisions about when to use particular sources, thereby limiting the use of time-consuming techniques to when absolutely necessary. Decisions about when to gather information may also affect the quality of information that can be gathered. When dealing with large project areas where loss of many properties is anticipated, it is important to gather information from local archival sources and oral histories before project activities destroy or disperse family or community records and residents.

Analysis of the accuracy and biases of source materials is critical in analyzing the information gathered from these sources. Maps, historical atlases and insurance maps should be assessed like written records for errors, biases and omissions; for example, some map sources may omit structures of a temporary nature or may not fully depict ethnic or minority areas. Likewise, building plans and architectural renderings may not reflect a structure as it was actually built.

Analysis: Analysis should not only focus on the issues defined in the research design, but should also explore major new issues identified during the course of research or analysis. The documentation gathered may raise important issues not previously considered, and further investigation may be important, particularly when contradictory information has been gathered. It is important to examine the implications of these new issues to ensure that they are investigated in a balanced way.

Questions that should be considered in analyzing the information include:

1. Has enough information been gathered to answer the questions that were posed?
2. Do the answers contradict one another? If so, it may be necessary to search for more evidence. If no additional evidence is available, judgments must be based on the available sources, weighing their biases. Conflicts of source materials should be noted.

In general, the more the researcher knows about the general historical period and setting and limitations of the source materials under investigation, the better the individual is prepared to evaluate the information found in the documentary sources investigated. Peer review or consultation with other knowledgeable individuals about the information and the tentative conclusions can be an important part of the analysis.

Integrating Results

The results of documentation must be integrated into the planning process so that planning decisions are based on the best available information. The new information is first assessed against the research design to determine whether the gathered information meets the defined objectives of the research. Then the relevant historic contexts, property types, and treatment goals for those contexts are all adjusted, as necessary, based on the historical documentation results.

Reporting Results

Reports should contain:
1. Summaries of the purpose of the documentation, the research design and methods and techniques of investigation.
2. Sources of facts or analyses so that other researchers can locate the information in its original context. Notation of any conflicts in source materials and how the individual performing the documentation interpreted these conflicts.
3. Sources consulted, includingthose expected to contain useful information and those than contained no information about the property(ies).
4.Assessment of the accuracy, biases and historical perspective of all sources. This information and that identified in No. 3 may be provided in an annotated bibliography.
5. Discussion of major analyses and results, including conclusions regarding all major research issues identified in the research design, as well as important issues raised in the course of research. The analysis should be summarized in terms of its impact on interpreting the property's significance and expanding or altering the knowledge about the property and its context.
6. Researchers' interpreting of historical events or trends. These interpretations should be clearly identified.
Primary results should be preserved and made accessible in some manner, although they need not necessarily be contained in the report. At minimum, the report should reference the location of notes and analyses.
Results of historic documentation should be made available for use in preservation planning and by the general public. Report formats may vary, depending on the audience and the anticipated uses of the documentation, but professionally accepted rules of report writing should be followed. If reports are of a technical nature, the format of the major scientific journal of the pertinent discipline may be the most appropriate format. Peer review of draft reports is one means of ensuring that state-of-the-art technical reports are produced.

Part of a series of articles titled Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines for Archeology and Historic Preservation.

Last updated: May 13, 2020