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Writing a Guidebook: “The risk of error and omission…”

From Preface to The WPA Guide to New York City, written in 1939:

“The risk of error and omission–always considerable in a work of this nature, despite every precaution–is slightly increased by the fact that responsible authorities sometimes disagree.”

Yes, that.

As I fact-check entries for Moon New York State, I am learning just how easy it is for errors and omissions to creep into texts and, over time, to harden into facts, even when I’m consulting primary, living sources who are supposed to be authorities on a place, person, or historical event.

Most of the time, there’s no willful intent to misinform, but I’ve come to realize, as I listen, for example, to the narratives of two different tour guides at the same attraction, how we each fill in history’s blank spots (or the ones that are simply less colorful) with our interpretations and, often, our imaginations. And the more we tell ourselves the versions of the histories we’ve crafted innocently–if with an extra flourish–the more we come to believe them.

You can attempt to get the most accurate bead on history by asking more precise questions

Was the hotel built in 1959 or did it open in 1959?

If the doors close at 10pm, does service end at 9pm?

and through triangulation (simply put: the consultation of multiple sources, checking them against each other), but the risks of error and omission still exist, and the larger the project is and the shorter its deadline, the more likely they are to occur.


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