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Testimony vs. Evidence

By Ruth Sandwell

This lesson is designed to help older students, or those more experienced with primary documents, to intensively examine one primary document to discover what kinds of testimony and other kinds of evidence it contains.

The Problem

Throughout the Mysteries websites, students are exposed to a wide variety of primary sources -- those documents written during, or close to, the time in which the mystery occurred. Although students may find many of these documents interesting, they are not always sure how to approach, let alone evaluate and interpret, the information they find. This exercise is designed to help students learn some of the skills that historians use to understand and evaluate the documentary evidence left to us from the past.

The Exercise

In this exercise, students are divided into groups of three to six students, and each group is given a copy of a historical document from the site. It should be short enough to be read and discussed in the time period allotted, concise and interesting enough to engage the students’ interest. A sample document from the “Who Killed William Robinson?” site is included here, at the end of this exercise.

Working in their small groups, students will begin by reading the document aloud. Still working in small groups, half the class (depending on time available and course level) will discuss some or all of Question Sheet A (Listening for the Testimony of the Author) and the other will work on some or all of Question Sheet B (Reading Beyond Testimony). Students will discuss the questions, and record their answers. The class will reconvene, and a representative from each group will make a report.

A) Listening for the testimony of the author(s): goals, purposes and intentions

Every primary document was created and preserved by someone. Many of the documents appearing on these sites were created by newspaper journalists or by government agents (particularly criminal justice system personnel). Almost all were preserved by one or more archives in Canada.

A detailed examination of the contexts within which the document was created and preserved -- who created the documents, and what were their specific purposes or intentions -- provides us with a good understanding of what the authors of the document intended to convey. The testimony of individuals, institutions, organizations, etc. has a great deal to tell us about the past.

  • Do you know who was responsible for creating this document? How do you know?
  • Why was the document created? How do you know? (what were their goals and purposes?)
  • Who was the intended audience for this document -- who was meant to read it? How do you know?
  • Who preserved this document? How do you know?
  • What is the most important information that the document was intended to convey?

B) Reading beyond testimony (or inferring evidence from testimony)

As Exercise A suggests, the specific goals and beliefs of those creating a document usually explicitly influence its creation and its preservation in many ways -- content, form, tone, information and meaning. Many documents, however, also contain evidence about society -- particular individuals, common behaviours, general beliefs, information about the relations between people or groups -- that may not have been intended by the document's creator.

Questions in this section refer to the ways that historians can read beyond the intentions of the documents' creators, finding in individual testimony evidence about the wider society in which the document appeared. Reading documents as “evidence” and not simply as “testimony” allows historians to move beyond the questions “is this statement true?” or even “was the author biased?” -- beyond the intended purpose of the document or even the concerns of those who created it -- to find material and make inferences pertaining to the larger question of interest to historians.

  • Whose voices are being represented in this document? Do they all have names?
  • How would you characterize these voices? Happy? Sad? Impartial? Frightened? Authoritative?
  • Can you tell what and who determines or directs what these voices say?
  • Can you tell if anything is being left out of the written text of verbatim accounts, if any are contained in the document? Can you speculate on what it might be?
  • What can you tell about the relations between the people represented in this document from the voices that we hear? (Are they equal or unequal? Are they related, or friends?) What gives you these impressions?
  • What distinctions, if any, does the document explicitly make between people? (e.g., Gender? Ethnicity? Place of Birth? Age? Occupation? Religion? Social status? Wealth?)
  • What can you infer about differences among people represented in this document? (i.e., are they all the same age? Gender? Ethnicity? Place of Birth? Age? Occupation? Religion? Social status?)
  • On what evidence do you base these inferences?
  • Can you reconstruct the physical setting in which the document was created? What value could such a reconstruction hold?
  • What is the most important evidence about this society that you can infer from this document? (e.g., are people equal in this society? If not, what determines people’s relative positions? Is this a society at war, or in peace? Conflict, or harmony? If this is a society in conflict, what are the issues around which conflict occurs?

C) Criteria for evaluating significance and meaning

The past is not easy to see or understand. Most people (very much like you) did not create documents that tell us about their experiences, and even if they did, these records seldom survived through the ages. To make things even more complicated, as we saw above, historians are not only interested in what individuals in the past perceived and understood about their lives; historians are also interested in larger and more general questions like, “What role did religious differences have in community formation?” -- questions that simply cannot be answered at the level of individual observation, or point of view. While most historians would agree that it is impossible to provide a definitive answer to the question “What happened in the past?,” we can draw on a variety of sources (texts), and on the research and writing that has already been done (contexts) to create a better understanding of the people, events and relationships that we know about from the past. This section examines some concrete ways of evaluating the quality, meaning and significance of any particular historical document in the process of “doing history.”

Step 1: Evaluate the quality of your historical document

How do we measure the quality of a historical document? Its quality is dependent on three things: its authenticity, its scope, and its suitability to our research agenda. Here are some questions that can help you evaluate these elements:

  • Is the historical origin and archival location of the document identified? Why does this matter?
  • How do you know that your document is authentic, i.e., what it claims to be?
  • Is the information that it contains complete, or are pieces of information missing? Are they illegible? How could an incomplete document, or an incomplete series of documents, influence your research findings?
  • Any single document does not provide us with enough evidence to make reasonable conclusions about the past. What other documents on the same subject, time period or about the same person, issue or event should you read to get a better understanding?

Step 2: Assess the kind of information the document contains

Every historical document gives us a snapshot of the past that provides some kind of information. Before we can understand what, exactly, a snapshot is showing us, however, we need to know something about where, when, why and by whom it was taken. We need a context for understanding its existence before we can understand its meaning. Both a personal letter from 1881 and a census from the same date might, for example, contain information of great use to a researcher. A letter gives us an excellent view of how a single individual experienced and felt about the past, while the census gives us a general overview of certain (and limited) kinds of behaviours. The kind of information that they contain about the past is, however, very different; using the census to explore an individual’s emotional experience of settlement, for example, is not likely to yield much success. To the extent that we know and understand a) the context in which a document was created, b) the purposes for which it was created and c) our own research questions, we can understand and evaluate the kind of information it gives us about the past.

The questions in sections A and B above established WHY someone created the document, and explored the other kinds of evidence that many sources can reveal about the broader social context. Both of these provide us key information about the society within which it was created. The evidence contained in the document can be further interrogated with the following questions:

  • This document provides a good source of information about some aspects of the past.
  • List three questions about the past that your document answers well.
  • List three questions about the past that the document addresses poorly, or not at all.
  • How would your opinion of this source change if you knew if was created by a) a corrupt bureaucrat, b) a writer of historical fiction, c) an inmate of a lunatic asylum?
  • How would your opinion of this source change if you knew it was created for a) an advertising campaign, b) a theatre production, c) the government of Canada?

Step 3: Evaluate the significance of the document to your historical argument

Even though a document is authentic, complete and well contextualized, it still might be useless for historical research. This is because the significance of any historical document is ultimately dependent on the skilled and appropriate use that the historian makes of it. The knowledge that researchers have of their general subject area helps them to frame questions about the past that are significant to current debates and interests. Their skill in thinking reasonably, logically, and creatively helps them to determine whether any particular source is a suitable one for answering familiar or new questions about the past.

The following questions provide some ways of evaluating the historical significance of your document:

  • What makes this document particularly suitable to the research you are doing?
  • Does the kind of information provided by your document answer the questions you are asking?
  • Does the information contained in this document support or contradict the findings of other historians? How?
  • If your research is on a new topic or unexplored area, how does it fit in with other research in a related geographical or subject area?
  • Do you need to consult more sources, more types of sources, or the findings of other historians to support the points you are making with this evidence?

The Learning Philosophy

As Roland Case and Ian Wright have argued in “Taking Seriously the Teaching of Critical Thinking” (in Roland Case and Penney Clark, eds., The Canadian Anthology of Social Studies: Issues and Strategies for Teachers (Vancouver: Pacific Educational Press, 1999, 179-193)), most students need to be taught the skills required to think critically about the world, past and present. Case and Wright include five items in their “toolkit” for critical thinking: background knowledge, an understanding of the criteria for appropriate judgment, a critical thinking vocabulary, thinking strategies, and particular habits of mind. This two-part exercise will provide three of these tools:

1) It will provide students with a vocabulary for discussing the documents to be examined -- author, voice, audience, preservation, archives -- and the words needed to discuss the important historical issues found within these documents -- ethnicity, gender, class, institution and justice. Instructors should consider explicitly incorporating this vocabulary, with definitions, into this class exercise.

2) This exercise provides students with some strategies for thinking critically about the primary sources contained in this site. Using the concepts of testimony and evidence, the questions below focus students' attention on the kinds of information historical documents contain, and the types of meaning we can glean from them, not only by paying close attention to what the author of the document intended, but by reading beyond the intended meaning of the document as testimony to find other evidence about the past that the document contains. By paying attention to the authorship of a document, students will explore the intended testimony that the document contains, and learn how to build a context in which to understand that testimony. Students will move on to explore the other kinds of evidence that a skilled researcher can find in historical documents; they will learn how to search for evidence that might help us to understand a great deal about a variety of people in earlier times -- and even the relations between people -- if they ask the right questions. The questions on sheets A and B, then, direct students' attention to testimony and evidence as strategies for thinking critically about the ways we can interpret the “raw materials” of the past -- i.e., historical documents.

3) While this critical-thinking strategy provides important lessons by introducing students to the importance of testimony, and then of evidence, their first encounter with the tenuous, fragmented and multi-vocal foundations of historical knowledge sometimes has the unfortunate side effect of completely paralyzing their ability to make the generalizations or draw the conclusions necessary to get the “big picture” of history. The final part of this exercise, therefore, includes some of the criteria for appropriate judgment that historians use as they try to evaluate the significance and meaning of the tenuous, fragmented and multi-vocal documents they read.


B.C. Archives, B.C. Premier's Office, correspondence inwards, Box 1, file 3 GR441 to Hon. Mr Smithe, Premier, B.C. April 28, 1885 from the Justice of the Peace on Saltspring Island, BC

Vesuvius Bay, Salt Spring Island


I am somewhat diffident as to whether it may not be beyond my province to address you on a particular subject, still as being an interested party both from my official position and as a settler here, I venture to do so . The subject that I allude to is the appointment of Mr. W. Anderson as Constable which is considered by many people here as decidedly hazardous and more likely to lead to breaches of the peace that serve the cause of order. Personally, I am by no means prejudiced with regard to colour but I do think that to set a coloured man to preserve order and make arrests amongst a large number of whites is very risky and likely to lead to serious results. This feeling is shared by others here and I was informed today that the men threaten not to allow a colored man to arrest any of their number. This doubtless to a certain extent may be bombast but not unlikely to be fulfilled should the men be in liquor at the time. I remain , your obedient servant,
A Walter.

I wish this communication to be considered strictly private.