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10 Things to Do with a Piece of Evidence

By Daniel Hubbard | April 24, 2010

When we were children most of us complained that we had nothing to do at one time or other. At the same time we usually had piles of blocks, Legos or some such thing waiting for us to build something. There were so many things we could have built when we had “nothing to do.” Today, we may think we have nothing to do and yet there might be stacks of documents containing evidence laying around just waiting for us to remember the joy of constructing with them.

Here are ten things that one can do with a piece of evidence. I’m sure the list could be enlarged but ten things seems to be canonical for such lists, so here are my ten. Some are optional but many are not under normal circumstances. I’ve listed them in roughly chronological order but many will overlap and some things should be done more than once, some activities feedback into others.

1 Get a Copy

Having it in your head is great but a paper or digital copy of the source of the evidence is a must if it is possible at all. Otherwise, take good notes.

2 Get Its Citation Information

Even with a copy of it in hand, if you don’t know where you found your evidence, you are asking for trouble. Exactly what to record for a citation is the subject of many books but anything that you would need to know to quickly get back to exactly what you have just found is important. That can range from the name and location of the archive, library or web site to the line number on the page (if there are line numbers). Next make sure that the citation information and the evidence are inseparable.

3 Evaluate Its Trustworthiness

Can you trust your new evidence? There is a lot that goes into answering that question and not all of it can be done at once.

The first thing to do is to see if the source and its information seem reliable. How was the source created? What is its history? Are there references to earlier sources that can be followed up? Is the information firsthand or secondhand? Is there anything clearly odd about it? Is it internally consistent? Does the handwriting change when it shouldn’t or not change when it should? Later on, as you analyze and integrate the evidence you might go through more advanced levels of suspicion.

4 Analyze

Depending on how you look at it, part of this activity can be seen as turning information into evidence. Of course any bit of information is liable to be evidence of something, that first tiny bit of analysis is what turns (or fails to turn) that information into something in which you are interested.

Once that first bit of microanalysis tells you that you have a piece of evidence and you make a copy and record the citation information you can proceed to try to wring every useful drop from your treasure.

5 Integrate

Now the real fun begins. How does this piece of evidence fit with your other evidence? How does it fit with conclusions you have drawn? If the fit doesn’t seem good, it is probably time to return to analyzing and evaluating the evidence with the added input of all your other evidence and conclusions.

6 Record the New Conclusions You Draw

Once you feel comfortable with this new piece of evidence and how it fits in with your previous work, record your new conclusions and alter your old conclusions as needed and make proper source citations to your new evidence.

7 Store it Where You Can Retrieve It

Eventually there will be a reason to look at your copy of the document containing the evidence and you want to be able to find it without too much trouble. There are probably as many ways to file things as there are people who file them but a quick tip is to file cross-references to documents you have filed elsewhere.

8 When in Doubt, Double Check It

Does something seem odd? Has another bit of evidence turned up that doesn’t seem to agree with what you have concluded. Get out your copies of sources with related evidence and go through them together. If need be go back to the source from which your copy was made and check if that symbol that looks like a 1 at home might turn out to be a 7 on closer inspection or if the author of a book said something in the introduction that changes the meaning of a date.

9 Revisit It

You don’t need to wait for a problem to turn up to get out old evidence. Sometimes you’ve learned more than you think since you went over that old bit of evidence and now going back over the document that contains it may turn up something that you couldn’t have known was important the first time through.

10 Share It

Whether you are naturally secretive or gregarious when it comes to your conclusions, at some point you will probably want to share them with someone. Share the evidence and its citation information too.

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