Saturday, June 11, 2016

On the Reliability of History - The Museum's First Keys

Greetings!  Today's post isn't necessarily about one specific key.  Rather, it's about something I found while cataloging that brings up some bigger questions about not just the Baldpate Inn's history, but bigger historical challenges in general.

The key in question that brought me to this issue was an ordinary key with an aged tag.  It was donated by a Miss Mary Louise Kelly from Denver.  What caught my attention here was the date of the key.  The tag is labeled June 1st, 1920.  Now, the first part to catch my eye was the fact that it was donated on my birthday, a good 73 years before I was born.  But, the more important part of the date was the year.


As our records and our history would have us believe, the first key donated to our collection was from the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow in 1923.  The Clarence Darrow key has been given distinction because of this.  Plenty of visitors to the key room have heard of the famed Darrow key and are sure to seek it out in its case.

But this is where we start pushing up against those historical problems.  The Darrow key is always going to be a prominent one simply because of Darrow's historical significance.  The big question is whether or not his really was the first key, and whether or not we should consider his to be the first.  Given the existence of the key labeled 1920, we have evidence that Darrow's key isn't the first.

With this in mind, let's talk about a big concept to history - reliability.  A historian is only as reliable as their sources.  Historical sources are typically evaluated in terms of reliability.  Where did the source come from?  What purpose does the source serve?  How valuable is it to the historian?  What limitations does it have?  It's important to keep all of those questions in mind when looking at any source.  In this way, we can find value in even the most useless of sources, while also knowing how the best sources have limits of their own.

When evaluating the 1920, we come up with a few different issues with reliability and making assumptions.  The first assumption is that everything on the key tag is fully accurate.  Realistically, anyone could write anything on a key donation tag.  If they wanted to put false information on it, they would be able to.  So, there is the chance that the information isn't accurate.  On the other hand, the assumption we make as curators when cataloging the keys is that the information on the tags is accurate.  Assuming otherwise would be far too skeptical.

Another assumption is about the date.  For our catalog purposes, we assume that the date on the key was the date it was donated.  Usually, if the key is significantly older than the date, it will be noted in other writing.  The alternative explanation to the date on the tag would be the date of the visit.  If this is the case on the 1920 key, the Darrow key could still be the first donated, and the 1920 key was donated after the Darrow key.  Since the tag doesn't specify, we can't make any conclusions in that regard.

So, what conclusions can we make?  First of all, the obvious one is that the Darrow key is probably not the first key donated.  Beyond just the Kelly 1920 key, the database notes several other keys donated around the same time, about 5 in all.  Additionally, the Darrow key not being the oldest isn't an issue.  Darrow was attributed to the "idea" of donating keys.  For all we know, he could have come up with the idea years before donating a key.  All in all, there's only so much we can conclude based on this.  It's our responsibility, as historians and key enthusiasts, to make sure we're telling the most accurate story we can from the sources we have.  Without actually having a time machine and a full firsthand account of the early days of the inn, there will always be questions.  Until that day comes where we can travel effortlessly through time, we'll continue to do the best we can with the sources we have.

As always, you can visit the 1920 Kelly key, the 1923 Darrow key, and every single key donated since then, by coming to the key room!

Forever evaluating sources,