Recent discussions on Almost Astronauts and Years of Dust have prompted commenters like Leslie C to wonder:
"I’m impressed by the level of detail that I’ve read on this blog about nonfiction accuracy. Can you tell us how that works in committee discussions, Nina or Johnathan or any other former members? What if one person comes up with legitimate concerns like Jane’s or Eric’s and the committee stuck in their private room maybe without the ability to explore the concerns all the way. So would a seed of doubt about accuracy be enough to make the committee just not want to go forward with a book? Or is the committee likely to have gone over all of that sort of thing before they meet?"
I think this is the fear of every committee: the late discovered inaccuracy. To combat it, committee chairs encourage members to explore and share any seeds of doubt as early as possible, so that they can enter the discussion as fully informed as possible. It can be a huge amount of work…but through the chair members can share findings so that the work doesn’t have to be duplicated, and so that everyone has a chance to consider it before the meeting. It doesn’t just come up with nonfiction accuracy, but also with historical ficiton accuracy, accuracy in dialect in fiction, etc. Sometimes a committee member will ask a subject specialist to review the content. In some cases it’s possible for members to do it themselves.
I served on the first Sibert Award committee in 2000. We were working with a set of criteria for the first time, and trying to set a standard. I did a lot of research that year, trying to randomly fact check any book that we’d be discussing. That is, I’d pick a handful of references in the text, track down the source, and compare. Was the source material fairly depicted? Was it taken out of context? It was very labor intensive, and involved a lot of visits to the UC Berkeley campus (where I have library priveleges forever, thanks to my Grandpa for the lifetime alumni membership. Best gift I’ve ever gotten). In retrospect, I don’t think it’s actually a feasible task for committee members to do with every title, but it was a fun experiment….and it further revealed to me the excellent work in that year’s winner: Marc Aronson’s Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado. I did find that if I had a red flag of unease about anything in a particular title, it was well worth looking into that title’s sources–it either put my mind at ease, or revealed a problematic foundation. I’ve continued to do this on committees or simply when reviewing a nonfiction title. Even when you can’t get your hands on the source material you want, reading other secondary sources on the same subject can help reveal holes, or the difference between fact and interpretation.
What does happen if a seed of doubt about accuracy enters in the final award deliberations? I’m sure it would depend on the situation, but I’d start by asking: how instinsic is the accuracy of this fact to the entire book? If it is inaccurate, how likely is it a single occurence, or how possible is it that it’s indicative of other problems? No committee, I think, would kill a title at the last moment due simply to suspicion. Some of those committees don’t sleep for a few days, and there is down time in which last minute research can be done thanks to the Internet. If I were committee chair and it happened, I’d also probably start placing some confidential phone calls to try to get a third or fourth hand last minute professional favor and turn up a specialist for review.
I can say that on one award committee I’ve served on we found a factual error in a book that we ended up giving an award. Each of us agreed on scrutiny that it appeared to be a typo kind of error (it involved numbers), so we believed that it didn’t indicate a problem with the research. As well, we agreed that in the context of the entire book, the error was so small that–while it did make it a less distinguished book than if it had had no errors–it was still clearly one of the most distinguished books of the year. We gave it a medal, and told the publisher that day about the error, which was indeed a typo and was fixed in the second printing.