For this week's online essay, go read Historiography, a short essay at the Concordia University Department of History's website. It's a nice follow-up to my earlier post Faithful History, and I'll use it to bring out a couple of the points touched on in that post by Richard L. Bushman.
First, Bushman rejected the "just the facts" model of history, rejecting as inadequate the notion that history is "a series of bead-like facts fixed in unchangeable order along the strings of time." The essay reminds us that facts are not the primary layer of historical material. Instead, a long list of items like memoirs, letters, legal and financial records, and even the physical remains of past civilizations form the evidence from which historians cull their historical facts.
Facts, in turn, provide the basis for a larger structure or interpretation:
Fact-finding is only the foundation for the selection, arrangement, and explanation that constitute historical interpretation. ... The historian must respect the facts, avoid ignorance and error as far as possible, and create a convincing, intellectually satisfying interpretation.
So from the bottom up, we start with a mass of evidence, from which selected facts relevant to the topic of study are drawn, and the facts in turn support a historical account or interpretation put forth by the historian. But there's also a top-down order: the account or interpretation the historian has in mind directs her to certain facts, which in turn guides her towards certain evidence. Unchecked, that become bias. But good historians start with a large body of fact in mind — generally accepted historical knowledge in their field — that helps them avoid the formation of untenable interpretations and prevents selection bias from unwittingly causing a historian to ignore unfavorable facts or evidence.
In any case, the evidence - facts - interpretation schema at least gives a reader of history some framework for approaching a historical narrative. The "faithful history" model advocated by some LDS leaders (as discussed in the prior post) might, using this vocabulary, be expressed as the idea that only "faithful interpretations" should be adopted by LDS historians, and that the faithful interpretation should then strongly influence the facts and evidence used by the historian. Bushman's model of faithful history in considerably softer. As he noted, "The possible styles of Mormon history are as varied as the people who write it."
The other sections of the essay are likewise suggestive for LDS history, such as the commentary on the role of Eusebius in expanding the scope of historical narrative to fit the Christian view of history. The schools of thought section is also worth some reflection. I think the standard LDS approach to history tends to adopt the Great Man view (stressing the role of key LDS leaders), historical forces (the Church as a stone cut from the mountain), and to some extent the frontier thesis.