If You Can't Say Something Nice

By Mike Legeros

Originally posted as a blog post on July 7, 2012

Several years ago I wrote a couple books about local fire departments. These were photo histories of Raleigh and Wake County firefighting. They were softcover volumes, about 220 pages each. (And bargain priced at $19.95, list!) They contained relatively little writing-- a couple pages of introductory text, and captions for around 200 images. So maybe "authored" is a better word than "written" here.

Both books contained errors. Small, medium, and big mistakes. The whopper was probably the wrong picture of old Station 6 in the first chapter of the first book. Sure, it looked like a former firehouse. Had two stories and everything. But the right building is right next door. A single-story affair, half of which the fire station occupied. (Lists of these errors, by the way, is available at www.legeros.com/books.)

The authoring process provided a valuable or perhaps invaluable lesson in limitations. Despite my best attempts at accuracy and clarity and artistic expression, the results were flawed. The books contained imperfection. There were things that I didn't like. They were typos, like Falls off Neuse instead of Falls of Neuse. There were boo boo's, like the aforementioned photo. Or, get this, the claim that Raleigh's first paid fire chief was the first one in America. Wrong!

(That howler came from a general history book about Raleigh. The correct statement might be that Fire Chief Sherwood Brockwell was the youngest full-time chief in the country at the time. Or maybe one of the youngest.)

There were also errors of omission. Things worthy of inclusion, but which weren't included. For example, there's no reference to the city's first line of duty death. Why not? During my period of research-- and when Yours Truly was just learning to walk as a historian-- only the sketchiest of facts presented themselves. Opting for safety over sorrow, the then-incomplete tale of Vernon Smith was left untold. (I didn't even have a photograph to write a caption about! That picture-- of the overturned engine-- was found on eBay a couple years later.)

And, obviously, there were a whole mess of facts and figures that were clarified or corrected or worthy of expansion, as discovered upon subsequent research for the second book. And which has continued from that point to present day. But that's the nature of timing and opportunity.

A couple years ago, a bunch of us local history authors appeared at Barnes & Noble at Crabtree. I asked this question of the most experienced author: "How can you write history books that don't contain mistakes?" Her answer: "Don't write books."

What she meant, of course, was that the process of researching history and writing about history (and the process to get them published) contains a margin of error that's always there.

Something else happened to me in the process of becoming Author Man. I developed a critical eye toward these types of books. I became increasingly discriminating with regard to, accuracy of historical information, aesthetics and quality of old photos, and the totality of this thing called a "fire history book."

I haven't written any more history books about firefighting-- not yet, at least-- but I have bought or read quite a few. Say, three or four dozen over the years. And guess what? That critical eye has been staring coldly and at times unsatisfactorily at those nifty new books.


Boy, oh, boy, the things that I've seen. Inconsistencies of writing or editing styles. Bad cropping or poor color correction of images. Lame layouts of pages. Poor quality reproductions of photographic or digital images. Factual mistakes. And so on.

In fact, some (just some?) of same things that you'll find in Raleigh & Wake County Firefighting and Raleigh & Wake County Firefighting, Volume II.  (Should this physician heal thyself first? He hopes to, and will someday write-- er, author-- more fire history books and with fewer errors per chapter than the first go-around.)

But parenthetical asides aside...

So there he sits, man in his man cave, in that room over the garage with the fire engine-red walls (the former owners were State fans), and pouring over some new fire history/apparatus/buff book. And he's just shaking his head. Maybe it's just a few flaws. Maybe it's a whole book of them. Usually, it's somewhere in the middle.

And… so what?

"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," goes the familiar refrain. Is there really any good reason to rant about these things? (This is a rant about ranting, so it's justified!) Is there a tangible value in calling attention to quality issues in fire history books?

Honestly, I don't know.

Fire history books and fire apparatus books and fire buff books are such a relatively rarity that any new release is a reason to celebrate. Based on my brief period in the author's seat, there are going to be flaws. There's inherent imperfection in getting from here (idea of book) to there (copy of book).

Advances in digital photography and digital publishing aren't helping things, either. It's easier than ever for people to take digital photos. The results, however, don't always have the resolution of a photographic print. (And if that lower-resolution shot is the only shot you have, well…)

It's also increasingly easy to create book-like content using desktop computing applications. These can be created in shorter periods of time, and in greater quantity. This can also impact quality. (A six-month book project is a world of difference from a six-year book project.)

And, let's be honest, not every author has at their disposal the North Carolina State Archives, their collection of News & Observer and Raleigh Times negatives dating to the 1940s, and months and years of free time for photo (and caption) research. (Those were the conditions of creating the Raleigh and Wake County books.)

Is there a point to my points, then? Beyond just a plea from Yours Truly to "please make better books?"

Maybe that's it.

Dear authors, please strive for quality. Your discriminating readers will appreciate it.

Thank you.

Comments From Blog Posting:

Nice article Mike.

It is tough to be comprehensive, accurate and correct. It seems like some buff books are assembled from a collection of someone’s photos, with the captions coming from someone else.

The same situation exists with technical and textbooks. I remember cringing when reading the first edition of Fire Officer when preparing to write the second edition. While the writing got better, there are things in the second edition that make me hang my head.

Maybe the third edition will be perfect (... who am I kidding!). Always appreciate your work and perspective.
Mike Ward (Email) (Web Site) - 07/07/12 - 13:55

Thanks for the thanks, Mike. And we must admit to our influences and sources. I have stood and continue to stand on many shoulders. With historical information, each core “fact” is going to “travel down the line.” Hopefully accuracy is preserved, and through citation and paraphrasing and rewriting. But there’s this pesky problem with the authors: they’re human! Just, say, handwriting some notes in a library can introduce errors, or they can manifest when those notes are typed onto a computer, and then again when retyped in a manuscript, and then again at the hands of an editor. Etcetera. One day I shall enthusiastically shout “no more books! That’s it!”
Legeros - 07/07/12 - 14:04


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