Clock at First Avenue Auto, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
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The Importance of Dating

Clock at First Avenue Auto, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
Clock at First Avenue Auto, Little Falls, MN, 2018.

The Importance of Dating

Today on The Pragmatic Historian, we’re going to discuss dating advice.

Lest you think this has suddenly become a venue along the lines of Emily Post, Miss Manners or Tinder, let me put your mind at ease. Dating in the context of history is more mundane than building a relationship with a potential romantic partner but, I’d argue, no less important.

In my post History in Numbers, where I discuss the history found in financial statements, one of the key elements I touch upon in following financial transactions is the date on which they occurred. It’s how you know whether a particular slice of pizza you bought at your favorite convenience store is from Monday of last week or Thursday of this week. The date of purchase tells you when the final payment of a 20-year mortgage will be due or how long your washing machine’s warranty will last. (Within a month of the warranty expiring is when your washing machine will irreparably break down and you’ll have to replace it, guaranteed. 🙂 )

Dating individual transactions is critical to creating financial statements (Profit & Loss, Balance Sheets, etc.), which show a conglomerate of financial transactions during a set period of time. If you don’t have the dates, you don’t have financial statements.

Dates Provide Context

But dates in history are not just crucial for financial documents. They provide context for everything else, too. Dating newspapers, books, ledgers, photos, maps, brochures, blog posts and tweets help us reconstruct history. The date a human being enters the world will affect numerous other events in her or his life.

When three-dimensional artifacts are offered to a museum for the collection, among the first questions asked of donors is, “When was this made or used?” Many three-dimensional items come without precise dates and if the donor doesn’t have this information, museum staff have to do our best to identify where a piece fits in the timeline of history. If we can’t figure this out, we use the term “circa” (shortened to “c.”) and provide a date range (c. 1890-1920) for the artifact.

Newspapers, because they deal in current events, are consistent daters. Maps and map makers, not so much. I can’t tell you how many maps I’ve run across without dates. It’s as though map makers assume the geography, geopolitical boundaries, and place names won’t ever change.

Engage in Regular Dating

Through my work at a museum, I have become obsessed with dating. Every document I create, I include the date. If I change a document, I update the date.

When making photocopies of historical resources for researchers, I write the date with the rest of the source citation on the copy, whether a researcher wants it or not. We have received too many news clippings without dates and I don’t want others to experience my frustration at finding copies of undated resources. It’s why I date every page of my journals and notebooks. What if a page gets ripped out?

For the love of history, please engage in regular dating.