Tenets: “Never Trust the Written Record”

As an academic grounded in the study of literature, it must have taken Warren a long time to abandon his faith in the written word. Yet, as a folklife researcher he came to believe that written records failed in three important ways:

  • They are inadequate as sources of data. For example, census records could not be trusted, as census takers often made mistakes in spelling, by neglecting or omitting data, or failing to ask enough questions. The typical farmer-craftsman, for example, was all too often listed only as “farmer” or “farm laborer.”
  • They are misleading and easily misunderstood without the insights provided by fieldwork. In a book about Indiana furniture makers, for example, the phrase “dogs for turning” was interpreted by the author as meaning a dog running in a cage. Based on fieldwork and his own knowledge as a cabinetmaker, Warren knew that “dogs” meant the metal parts for a lathe.
  • They are inaccurate. Facts and figures can be disproved by the researcher who does fieldwork and compiles his own statistics. To illustrate this point, Warren offered this example. The 1890 census reported that 334,000 cubic feet of sandstone was produced in Indiana. An angry editor of the trade journal, Stone, talked to quarry owners and discovered the amount was more than 9 million cubic feet.

"For a long time it has been a general assumption that in order to understand the past it is necessary to locate and probe written documents. When one is trying to learn about the common people—about 95 percent of the population—the attempted reliance on written records usually proves futile. Folk architecture is a good case in point. There are very few written records that deal with the houses of the average person in the preindustrial era, but there are a great number of such houses that have survived. When written sources do not agree with evidence derived from examining old buildings, does one accept the word of the written source or evidence provided by one’s own eyes? . . . My experiences with old buildings convinced me that I should examine the buildings first and draw whatever conclusions I could. Only then would I look at the written sources to learn what they had to say on the subject."

“Preface,” in Log Buildings of Southern Indiana, rev. ed., 1996, vii-viii.