On the Necessity of Interpretation: Three Examples

By October 6, 2013

It is a truth universally (I think) acknowledged among academically-trained historians that all documents must be “situated historically.” That is, we must interpret the words (and other aspects of an artifact) in light of the original audience, provenance, language of the time, potential knowledge of the creator, and so on. Of course, reasonable professionals may disagree about the type and degree of interpretation necessary for a given document, but I believe there is wide consensus on the idea that no document or artifact can speak entirely for itself. Students, however, do not always readily accept the necessity. In the interest of helping such students, I give three examples of artifacts that require historical interpretation.

1) Elder Robert D Hales’s notes from general conference. Yesterday he explained that in taking notes (paraphrase): “what is said is not as important as what I feel.” Any hypothetical future historian reviewing Elder Hales’s notes should remember that the notes are an impression of the talk, not a transcript.

2) This image of the Provo Templenacle from a Provo City Landmarks Commission Staff Report, 2012 Nov 14. (A similar image was distributed in southern Provo churches in 2013 June).

Provo City Center Temple LandmarksCommissionApp 2012Nov01

Compare this Google street-view image from (I think) approximately the same compass angle but from a lower elevation:

Provo City Center Temple Google streetview 20131007a

In the architectural rendering we can read the street signs, the cars are realistically dirty, the drivers show natural poses, etc, but the Nu Skin buildings are absent.

3) This post. My assertions about what thousands of historians do or do not believe must be understood in light of my personal non-acquaintance with, essentially, all historians. (The dozens with whom I have interacted are a tiny fraction of the total number.) My qualifier “academically-trained historians” could mean a great many things. The Mormon-ness and the timing of my examples all might tell potential readers something about me and why I write and how the message should be understood. Some of those readers might interpret the significance differently than I do. And so on.


Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. That picture of the Provo Temple without the building behind it is about as egregious as it would be with the building showing, but it reminds me of a local story about an artist’s rendering.

    My family lives in a fairly flat part of the mid-Atlantic region half an hour distant from five LDS meetinghouses.

    Several years ago the Church was going to build a meetinghouse in that coverage gap. (Then a bunch of families moved out of the ward and the fledgling Spanish branch fizzled, and the plans have been on hold since then.)

    But back several years ago they purchased a beautiful lot on a well-travelled highway and began negotiations with the local township. The Church provided slightly customized plans for the meetinghouse and passed them around to the government officials at a township meeting. As the officials started to look at the artist’s sketch, they started to get big smiles on their faces. Finally, one of them said, “Does the mountain come with the meetinghouse?”

    Comment by Amy T — October 7, 2013 @ 7:40 am

  2. Edje, we (as in everyone) all wish NuSkin wasn’t there (or anywhere, for that matter), so this is a simple matter of wish becoming reality. At least that’s my impression from reading the notes I took on my first reading of your post.

    Comment by kevinf — October 7, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  3. That’s a great story, Amy. Thanks.

    Kevin: my working-draft title was “First Presidency Announces Razing of Nu Skin Buildings.”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 8, 2013 @ 7:47 am

  4. I have been academically trained, just not as a historian. That means that I have had to unlearn many bad habits when my hobby requires me to place a document in historical context.

    It the same vein as the architectural drawing, our historical depictions have sometimes been criticized for being historically inaccurate. (for example the translation of the Book of Mormon). History is one thing, but perhaps when it comes to art, Elder Hales’ record of impressions is good enough, just as Catholic depictions of the Apostle Peter show him holding keys. A historian will know those keys are symbolic and can place it in context.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — October 8, 2013 @ 3:35 pm


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